Angry Birds 2 and the boring middle ground of video game movies

Angry Birds 2 is the movie adaptation that few of us knew we needed, and even fewer have the energy to argue against. As a game, it was compulsive, fun, and the harmless concept was accessible. It was an admirable way to disappear during your commute or to avoid speaking to co-workers on your lunch break. However, it’s been 10 years since that first foray, and the anniversary is being marked by the second outing in movie form. We’ve had 18 (count ‘em) iterations of the game for different devices, a line of toys, an animated TV series and now, for the second time, the small birds are on the big screen.

Adaptations of video games have been something of a poisoned chalice in the past, but we are really in prime adaptation territory these days, with the runaway success of Detective Pikachu earlier this year. Detective Pikachu emerged from a fairly comprehensive cultural moment, however, and a universe of Pokemon and people which have been influencing fashion, games, and literature for the past 23 years. Angry Birds? Not so much. In the wake of one of the first largely successful video game adaptations, Angry Birds 2 might be holding its own in the pre-American market, but it is one odd duck in the video game film department as a whole.

The ghosts of brother’s past

Video game adaptations are hardly uncharted territory. The first, and arguably most cult offering in the field was the critical failure of Super Mario Brothers from 26 years ago. A very good year but not for the brothers themselves. The film, built on an insane pseudo-Ghostbuster, part Labyrinth-style premise was a box office failure, grossing less than half of the production cost, and blighting Nintendo’s reputation to the point that future productions were limited. In the years since, however, in a similar way to The Room, the film has picked up a fond cult following.

There have been a plethora of video game adaptations down the years, some more successful than others but Super Mario Bros. is the gold standard in a weird way. The thing about them is that we as an audience are extremely picky about the offerings. When we get adaptations of well-known, beloved classics, inevitably, these will fall short of our great expectations. The Prince of Persia (despite accusations of racially insensitive casting), most of the Resident Evil films, and even Max Payne have all been financial successes, but the crown currently goes to Detective Pikachu.

(Detective) Pikachu, I chose you

Pokemon, however, delivered Detective Pikachu in the golden hour, and avoided the fate of the Mario Brothers. Detective Pikachu broke the mold by creating a fairly standalone cutesy premise, but really, it was destined for success when the first images came out and we lost our hearts to that yellow puff-ball beauty. Admittedly, it’s still uncanny to hear the dulcet tones of Ryan Reynolds from that tiny creature, but that’s sort of the point. The success here makes almost perfect sense, though: solid marketing, fairly well-written ,and beautifully animated, coming off the back of a successful franchise and hitting the market in the sweet-spot post the general furor of Pokemon Go.

The joy of Detective Pikachu, as one critic put it, is that in this film Hollywood understands Pokemon. Rather than skating on the peripheries of the universe, it engages with the politics and rules of the Poke-verse clearly and enticingly enough to bring in fans and non-fans alike. There were enough small references for those who had prior experience with the series — like the classic Game Boy-esque battle music — and stuff everyone could understand like its cute cast of creatures. It had a huge audience and appealed to those two crowds well.

On a wing and an Angry Bird-like prayer

Angry Birds 2, on the other hand, is fine. It’s the workhorse of the adaptation game. The characters are cute, the concept is a little Worms and appeals to the ’90s kid in us all, and damn, if the game didn’t make quite the impact on the download market. But no one has the emotional connection to Angry Birds which might render a poor adaptation a cause for concern or rage. It is allowed, as a product, to be perfectly serviceable, and we are allowed to enjoy a video game adaptation, for once, for what it is: a bit of fun, and diversion.

Currently, miraculously, and depending on your definition of a “video game movie,” it’s the highest-rated video game adaptation on Rotten Tomatoes, but it has yet to be released across the United States where its currently passable critical reception might dip. And those critics currently seem to agree that it is a passable film but ultimately disposable. That gives this the freedom which many adaptations have lacked. The pressure has been on for everything from Tomb Raider to Detective Pikachu to not just measure up to the expectation of the playable game, but to overcome. If you’ve only got two hours to impress an audience used to infinite hours of their own leisured experience, you’re going to have a bad time. Angry Birds 2 is able to sidestep some of those expectations because not as much is riding on it.

Legends of the Legend of the Zelda and beyond

So should we be demanding more, or should we be happy consuming the perfectly acceptable offerings of Sony, and enjoying two hours of bird-brained activities? Video games strike a broad range of genres from serious action to kids movie, so there is room for both. But there is also more to explore in this adaptation game and throwaway movies like this already seem to be kicking a medium that can’t seem to make a smooth transition to another.

It just seems worse because of all the missed potential of other video game movies. In fact, they don’t even need to be actual movies . You may remember that heady April 1, 2008 yourself, when the above trailer was teased and heartbreak followed. No one is suggesting that it’s aged perfectly (have you seen Ganon’s wig recently?). But all the same, it struck a nerve, and made April 2, 2008 a bitter, bitter day. The trailer might be giving us serious Shanara Chronicles flashbacks, but there was potential there. But when it comes to something like The Legend of Zelda, or some of the loftier titles which we’ve grown to love and enjoy, there’s potential for something incredible. Perhaps as consumers, we should be a little more demanding, and a little less content to accept something arguably as cheap the sequel to an Angry Birds movie.

Speaking of cheep, it’s impossible to argue against the pleasantly surprised and relieved reviews for Angry Birds 2 on the European side of the Atlantic, but the Rotten Tomato rating is likely due for a respectable swan-dive when it finally releases internationally. But as it stands, it’s passable. And after decades of bad takes on good series, it’s disappointing to see a fine translation of a fine property. We might live and die by second-hand angst over everything wrong with the last Tomb Raider, but this time, Angry Birds 2 is not a hill that we have to die on. It’s just a hit we sit on, unfazed, awaiting the arrival of the blue hedgehog. It admittedly looks a goofy, human-teethed protagonist is the least of the film’s issues but at least that’s going to be another big swing.