‘America: The Motion Picture’ Review: Netflix Toon Gives U.S. History a Twist of ‘Archer’-Style Irreverence

·3-min read

America’s creation myths may not be entirely rooted in fact — few of us still believe the story about George Washington chopping down that cherry tree — but they’re considerably less outlandish than “America: The Motion Picture,” an animated comedy in which our first president is a chainsaw-wielding freedom fighter who founds America to avenge the murder of his best friend, Abraham Lincoln. If that timeline seems impossible, that’s because it is — not that this “Adult Swim”-esque cartoon cares. Directed by Matt Thompson and counting Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and “Archer” creator Adam Reed among its producers, the film brings an anarchic energy to the story of how many become one.

Within the first few chaotic minutes, history has already been drastically revised: “We the people” beats out “us rich white dudes” via a game of beer pong as the Declaration of Independence is signed, only for Benedict Arnold (Andy Samberg) to arrive on the scene and literally blow up the Second Continental Congress; the traitor murders Lincoln (Will Forte) at Ford’s Theater moments later. (Arnold, it should go without saying, is also a werewolf.) Everything that follows is just as violent, anachronistic, and ridiculous, not to mention funny. Though loyalists and sticklers for historical accuracy may not consider it their cup of tea, “America” will likely win over anyone who knows not to take it too seriously.

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Chainsaws notwithstanding, even George Washington (Channing Tatum) isn’t mighty enough to topple the “fun police” across the pond by his lonesome. His fellow patriots include Samuel Adams (Jason Mantzoukas), Paul Revere (Bobby Moynihan), Geronimo (Raoul Max Trujillo), and Thomas Edison (Olivia Munn), reimagined here as a Chinese woman — which is to say, not all the film’s founding fathers are, strictly speaking, fathers. Their characterizations are appropriately over-the-top: Adams is a beer-swilling frat boy, Revere is a horse-loving manchild, and Edison is as much sorcerer as scientist; Geronimo, meanwhile, is the pessimistic straight man who’s right to doubt his new allies’ promises to return his people’s land after they defeat the British together.

Though lacking in novelty, this brand of (a)historical humor has demonstrated surprising staying power. The similarly tongue-in-cheek “Drunk History” began as a Funny or Die series in 2007 and would likely still be on Comedy Central were it not for the pandemic, while “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is only the tip of the presidents-with-supernatural-abilities iceberg. Speaking of icebergs, “America: The Motion Picture” does indeed feature the Titanic sinking, albeit under different circumstances. No aspect of history is off-limits here, the result being a grab bag of references, battles, and jokes that are constantly trying to one-up each other in terms of absurdity.

Though this style of humor isn’t always laugh-a-minute, and the novelty does begin to wear off around the time that a half-horse, half-RoboCop hybrid shows up (don’t ask), the film is so cheekily irreverent that it’s hard not to admire its chutzpah even when you aren’t actively chuckling. That’s especially true given the debate (if it can even be called that) currently raging over how our nation’s history should be taught in schools — with questions like “what about your slaves?” hurled at Washington et al. following their inevitable victory, the makers of “America” prove themselves willing to grapple with the country’s original sin. Many have tried to rewrite America’s history in previous years, decades, and even centuries; at least this film is honest — and, at times, hilarious — about it.

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