Op-Ed: The Hidden Messages in the Animated Movie STORKS

Op-Ed: The Hidden Messages in the Animated Movie STORKS

by Tiffany Marie Brannon

Why your kids don’t need to “Find their Flock.”

I love animated films. I remember growing up with staples such as Robin Hood, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone, Bambi, and Beauty and the Beast.You name it, I watched it. So, imagine my delight when I saw the trailer for Storks, the Warner Bros Animation’s latest foray into children-targeted films, and the adorable, color-filled fairy tale storyline it presented. I was excited for a few hours of cute animated babies and birds. The press screenings and elaborate junkets were just as tantalizing and color-fun-filled to enter as the movie promised to be. Unfortunately, a few hours later I walked out of the theatre with nothing but disappointment and frustration at both the film and the society that encourages entertainment like this to be made for children and adults alike.

The idea of Storks as the bringers of babies is not a novel thing. Hans Christian Anderson wrote a faerie tale supposedly based off of Scandinavian folklore about storks delivering babies that the Scandinavian parents would tell their children in order to avoid the “birds and the bees” discussion until it was appropriate. Dumbo was delivered to his mother by a stork in the 1941 Disney animated film; Vlasic pickles chose a stork to be their company emblem and mascot due to the stereotypical pregnant woman’s affinity for pickles and ice cream; and, the list goes on. Storks have been harbingers of fertility and good luck; they’ve been adorable winged creatures delivering cherubic infants to excited parents; and now, with the movie Storks, they are businessmen who deliver packages for an internet retail giant, the holders of a sort of magical baby making machine, and have a leader who is an evil capitalist egomaniac.

The main protagonists are Tulip, a human orphan raised by storks, who doesn’t fit, and Junior, a young up-and-coming stork, who is the star of the stork fleet, but who is secretly rather lonely. There is the dumb and slightly inappropriate Pigeon Toady as a sidekick to the antagonist stork boss, Hunter, who wants to fire Tulip from working on Stork Island and remove her because she inhibits business productivity. Junior is given the task of firing her, with the reward being he gets promoted to become the new boss while Hunter becomes CEO. However, he can’t bring himself to do it and instead hides Tulip in the forgotten mailroom where people used to send letters when they wanted a baby. The letters used to be put into a now-shut-down machine that would then create the baby that one wanted from the letter. Once the baby was created, the storks would deliver the infant to its’ new home. Down on the human side of things, there is a little boy named Nate and his parents who live in suburbia. His parents are too busy for him and are depicted as workaholics, and so Nate is also lonely and desperately wants a baby brother. He writes a letter to The Storks, not knowing they no longer deliver babies, and Tulip, who is bored and hanging out in the mailroom, is on the receiving end of it. She wants to make Nate’s dream come true and plugs the baby making machine back in, which of course leads to complete chaos and the creation of a beautiful baby girl that needs to be delivered. Junior discovers this, and, in an attempt to save his job and help Tulip find her own family, they embark on an adventure to try to deliver the baby. Pigeon Toady discovers this and reports it to Hunter, who then sends out a search party to recover the baby and send it off to be raised by penguins, so that no one discovers the storks can still make babies, and their business isn’t hurt. So, Tulip and Junior embark on a crazy journey that naturally reawakens the sentimental heart of Junior and reunites Tulip with her lost family, while delivering the baby to Nate and his parents and eventually restarting the stork business of delivering babies and not packages.

The stork flock is made up of almost entirely male, workaholics, business types who care more about capitalism and turning a profit than the social plight of the people in the world below them. Junior even goes so far as to willingly break his wing early on in the movie in order to stop a threat to his employment position or the Stork company, which decided to stop delivering babies and start delivering Amazon-type packages due to financial gain and high-risk problems. Storks no longer have sentimentality, but are all about cold-hearted business sense and productivity. Stork Island is elitist, for birds only, and resides high up in the clouds, remote and teetering over the rest of the world.

The storks hold the power to produce babies, but withhold that power and have literally unplugged the baby making machine. The thought is that back when the world was full of hopes and dreams anyone, who wanted a baby could write a letter to the Storks and get the baby they always dreamed of having. After one awry incident in which a stork by the name of Jasper “falls in love” with the baby Tulip, who he is supposed to deliver to her parents, disaster strikes. Jasper accidentally breaks Tulip’s delivery beacon, which contains the address of her would-be human home, and so she ends up growing up on Stork Island, so they shut down the baby/stork program in lieu of delivering packages. Jasper lurks around Stork Island for years, seemingly stalking Tulip and following her everywhere, but it turns out that he felt so bad about breaking her homing beacon, that he has dedicated his life to finding all the broken pieces and putting it back together so that he can deliver Tulip to her rightful home. Eventually, these two would-be enemies are united, Tulip forgives him, and he joins the team of protagonists. The antagonist then solely becomes the boss character of Hunter, voiced by co-producer Kelsey Grammar. Ruthless and willing to do anything to keep profits up and get his promotion, he goes so far as to try to kill or hurt others.

Tulip (voiced by Katie Crown), the main female character, is fairly androgynous. She doesn’t have a crush on anyone, there is no boy to romance her, she wears pants and big boots everywhere, and comes out and says that she’s a “strong, independent woman.” While she’s not actually outed as a lesbian within the film, she’s definitely more asexual than any female animated heroine except perhaps Ellen Degeneres’ voiced Dory in Pixar’s Finding Nemo. SNL veteran and Brooklyn 99 star Andy Samberg’s lends his voice to Junior, the main Stork protagonist character, who is cocky on the outside but secretly kind on the inside. He isn’t the typical male hero, but is reluctant, a little scared, and doesn’t tend to show his emotions or immediately do what is right. Tulip is the real heroine of the film. Tulip and Junior form an unconventional family in order to take care of the baby, but there is no real romance involved. However, the audience gets the feeling that while this isn’t an outright romantic relationship, it isn’t as platonic as brother and sister either. And, that’s just weird. Because, you know, it’s a girl and a bird. But hey, with the whole “find your flock” tagline, whatever or whoever you choose to love is all that matters. Right? Well, not according to the Bible or thousands of years of history and morality. Apparently, according to Warner Bros. and Stoller, what is important is being true to who you are and being a strong independent person and being more concerned with being allowed to love and produce offspring in whatever way possible and not anything remotely related to the sanctity of family. Tulip and Junior love each other, and that love is declared, but as “family” because, as this movie would have you believe, a family is who you make it and who you love, not a man and a women in a marriage relationship.

The magical forgotten baby machine the storks have in their possession is a clear metaphor for IVF. People sending in their letters and wishes for a baby and then being able to get one almost perfectly made-to-order and delivered to your door without having to do anything we human beings normally would have to do in order to pro-create, presents a clearly secular and postmodern worldview. The film’s writer, director and co-producer, Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Muppets, Muppet Most Wanted), confirmed this metaphor in our interview with him shortly before the film’s release. Stoller said that “… the kind of emotional genesis for the idea was based on the idea [that] I have two daughters, and my older was very easy for my wife and I to have her, and my younger one was very hard, and it was kind of a surprise, and we had to do a lot of fertility stuff, and it seemed like something that was worth talking about in a movie obviously in a very buried way, and then I came up with this idea of a world where storks used to deliver babies and now deliver for Amazon….” Co-producer Brad Lewis added his thoughts by saying “…when you’re having a baby, you don’t always do it a traditional way, so, thinking of nontraditional methods of having babies is part of the fun we have in the movie …. We wanted to be inclusive …. Everybody loves a baby when babies come into the world. It’s one of the most hopeful times in anybody’s life and that’s a universal condition. So, we certainly wanted to pay that off and have that be an element of the movie.” These comments present some very interesting areas of discussion. The first being IVF technology and its implications in regard to the traditional family unit. IVF not only provides married heterosexual couples the opportunity to have children when normal biology fails them, but it also offers homosexual, single parent, and other combinations to have children. This ventures into dangerous territory as IVF technology and its relatives give mankind another reason why a traditional marriage where children are the fruit of love and a covenant relationship, and where they will have both a mother and father figure (however imperfect because all humans are) can be a thing of the past. IVF is the Woodstock of the womb. You know, as long as you have the money to pay for it. Which is a little crazy when you think about it. The average abortion in the United States costs approximately $450, while the thousands of people who are trying to conceive through IVF and other technologies are paying almost 27x that, with an average cost in the U.S. of $12,000.

While some Christians may be pro-IVF and in favor of other fertility treatments, there is a serious ongoing dialogue as to its moral standing. This is an issue addressed by an excellent 2013 article by Jennifer Lahl titled “The Overlooked Ethics of Reproduction,” published by Christianity Today. Lahl writes that, “The fact that so many people fail to consider the moral implications of IVF suggests that in the age of fertility treatments, surrogates and modern family-building via parenting partnerships, a woman’s womb has come to be seen as a somewhat arbitrary location. NBC’s The New Normal quips that women are “Easy-Bake Ovens” and children are “cupcakes.” In Scripture, God affirms that what happens in utero matters and cannot be casually or disrespectfully dismissed. The womb, where God first knits us together (Ps. 139:13-14), is not an arbitrary place for a child to grow and develop. In fact, modern science has proven just how important those 9 months are for both mother and child. Renowned marriage and family therapist Nancy Verrier, in her book The Primal Wound, writes about how mothers are biologically, hormonally and emotionally programmed to bond with their babies in utero as well as at birth. A baby knows his or her mother at birth, and both the mother and the baby will experience grief at any separation at the time of birth. This primal wound is forever present.”

Logistically, there are usually several embryos made in the scientific process, with the parents then able to choose things such as gender and the embryos without any defect for implantation. It’s an example of man playing God. If you believe that life begins at conception, this presents a serious problem. In the IVF process, many embryos are thrown away, or frozen indefinitely, or donated to science. These are viable babies. These are human lives. They just aren’t wanted and can’t speak for themselves. They might not be convenient for you. They might have downs syndrome. Or, they are a boy instead of a desired girl. Or, they aren’t somehow “perfect.” So, the question begs asking: what’s the difference between this discernment of human life and abortion? But, that’s not the question Storks gives us an answer. It’s the one they ignore, and then pivot to avoid. Instead, the movie tells us that everyone should be able to have a baby and that you don’t need a “family” in order to have a baby because the term “family” is whatever you want it to be and is simply whomever you love. When asked what “family” means to him, and what he wants children and parents to walk away with from the film, Stoller replied that “… a family is a group of people that, like, love each other, it’s the people you love, that’s really what it is, and I think that’s what the movie is trying to get across.”  The actress behind the voice of Tulip, Katie Crown, added that for her definition of family “the word comfort comes to mind, longing, familiarity…” Comfort and familiarity? A group of people that simply love each other? I mean, really? If this isn’t spelling the words “liberal progressive movie agenda,” then I don’t know what is. The scariest part of all of this? Your children are absolutely LOVING this movie. It’s colorful and cute and occasionally funny. They have no idea what is being spooned to them on a silver screen.

Lahl continues, and asks why the modern Christian church hasn’t taken a stand on something like IVF, while the Catholic church has. She adds that it “may be time to consider that our Catholic brothers and sisters are right on these, issues and that Protestants and evangelicals should carefully consider what they have to say. From the Catholic Church’s catechism:

Techniques that entail the dissociation of husband and wife, by the intrusion of a person other than the couple (donation of sperm or ovum, surrogate uterus), are gravely immoral. These techniques (heterologous artificial insemination and fertilization) infringe the child’s right to be born of a father and mother known to him and bound to each other by marriage. They betray the spouses’ “right to become a father and a mother only through each other. The barren womb is a matter of great heartache and sadness. But, is it unlike any other suffering we are asked to carry? In what ways might Job’s question, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” affect our thinking about infertility?”

Lahl is not alone in her opinion or in this  incredibly important and relevant conversation. In Cristina S. Richie’s 2012 article “A Christian Understanding of In Vitro Fertilization” in Ministry Magazine, we are faced with what Scripture says about infertility, IVF, and the desire to be parents. Richie writes that the Bible

“reassures us that God does have a plan for our lives. Romans 8:28 says, “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (NIV). This does not mean that we will get everything we want, but it does mean that we are secure in the plans of God. When the pain and isolation involved in infertility comes into the lives of a Christian couple, an appropriate response can be found in the Scriptures. The Bible tells many stories of infertile couples: Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 16; 18; 21), Rachel and Jacob (Gen. 29:31–30:24; Gen. 35:16–25), Hannah and Elkanah (1 Sam. 1), and Elizabeth and Zechariah (Luke 1), but the Bible also has beautiful promises for those who could not have children. The Lord will not shame women for being unable to produce biologically but will treat them as equals (see Isa. 54:4). At a time when a husband could divorce a woman for not giving him children, this passage demonstrates that God’s love and acceptance transcends worldly values. Later in Isaiah, God says that it is better to receive an eternal heavenly status than have a worldly legacy that will pass away (Isa. 56:3b–5). For this reason, God promises those who cannot have children an eternal legacy in the Lord. God knows that the desire to leave a “name” after one dies is a goal for many people, and we are reassured that in heaven, we will have that legacy; the Lord magnificently provides for us in His eternal plan.”

Movies like Storks aren’t going to teach anyone this Scriptural truth. Adults and children alike will be leaving the theatre with an empty but oh-so-pretty picture of family and parenthood. It’s the duty of believers to stand against the hollow promises and lies of this world, to ensure that our children won’t grow up thinking this is the norm and that they will be able to recognize the twisting of God’s plan beneath the veneer of movie magic cuteness.

The second large subject raised by Storks is the prevalence of gender issues presented, especially the presence of same-sex couples in the movie, which is the first time I’ve seen it so blatantly in a children’s film. We know that people have written letters to the Storks for years pleading and dreaming of babies they most likely won’t get any other way. The tyrannical Boss Stork has ignored these letters and allowed them to pile up for years: forgotten and discarded letters that represent the unfulfilled dreams of millions, who are heterosexual couples, homosexual couples, older couples, younger couples, hipster couples, corporate couples, of all ethnicities and backgrounds. However, this tells the audience that it doesn’t matter how old you are, your sexual orientation, or what physical limitations you may have in reproducing, you can still be a parent thanks to in-vitro fertilization technology. The interesting thing is that sex is referenced a lot in this film and is considered the “new” way that people get babies. And, it isn’t exactly smiled upon. It’s seen as kind of awkward and taboo, probably because the movie is operating on the premise that it isn’t fair that only people who were created to have sex with the result of possible new life are a man and a woman. Storks tells us that sex is actually kind of prejudice. It isn’t fair that babies can only come from a man and woman having sex, and it shouldn’t be about our “biological limitations.” Essentially, this movie places babies almost on the same level of puppies, who are adorable, and anyone who wants one should be able to have one! Because that’s “love,” and love is all that matters. Well, I’m sorry Mr. Stoller, Mr. Sweetland and Mr. Lewis, but that’s the opposite of the truth.

In regard to having LGTB couples represented in the film, Stoller commented that, “yeah, I mean it was important to us, you know, to reflect what’s really happening in our society in that ending sequence.” Co-director Doug Sweetland added that the movie “essentially, on the surface, is about a bird and a girl taking a baby across and becoming an odd sort of family of their own. That’s one of the themes of the movie it’s family is who you love, and who you end up bonding with, it’s not so strictly defined. So, it would be weird then to not have an inclusive ending …. You want to see all of the different types of people that are expecting, so yeah attention was paid to make sure that was an inclusive moment for everyone.” Star Andy Samberg added that in terms of the same-sex and gender neutral portrayals in the movie, especially the sequence that depicted these non-traditional couples all receiving cuddly little babies, that he was… 

“… really happy it was a part of it. It’s definitely something that’s in line with my beliefs. I think adoption and IVF and all the different methods of forming a family are in a lot of ways still viewed as taboo by certain communities, and I think that’s kind of antiquated, and I love the fact that kids will be watching this and learning that that’s the norm from a young age so they’ll never question it. I feel like that’s a much healthier way to move forward.” That’s right. The star of the movie you’re taking your children to watch is happy you’re doing it because he knows that your children will be learning this representation of LGTB families or non-committed couples is “the norm from a young are so they’ll never question it.” Because, for people like Samberg, to question the things that society tells us should be accepted and celebrated without argument is crazy talk. In fact, it might lead to you actually think for yourself and come to a conclusion that doesn’t line up with their ever-pushy agenda. You might come across the 2012 Washington Times article by Cheryl Wetzstein that tells a sociological study has come up with the opposite conclusion. Wetzstein shares that “Using a new, “gold standard” data set of nearly 3,000 randomly selected American young adults, Mr. Regnerus looked at their lives on 40 measures of social, emotional and relationship outcomes. He found that, when compared with adults raised in married, mother-father families, adults raised by lesbian mothers had negative outcomes in 24 of 40 categories, while adults raised by gay fathers had negative outcomes in 19 categories. Findings such as these do not support claims that there are “no differences” between gay parenting and heterosexual, married parents, said Mr. Regnerus, who helped develop the New Family Structures Study at the university. Instead, “children appear most apt to succeed well as adults when they spend their entire childhood with their married mother and father, and especially when the parents remain married to the present day,” he wrote.” Perhaps someone should send that to Samberg’s publicist. Fun, and widely unreported, fact: according to a 2015 Gallup Poll, only 3.8% of the American population identifies as LGTB, while the representation in pop culture and the belief of society is that the LGTB population is over 25% of the U.S. population. That is a gross misrepresentation and is completely misleading – whether you believe in God or not, you should at least know the facts and recognize that Hollywood’s obsession with “representing” in every television show or movie the 3.8% of the population that identifies as same-sex attracted is not, in fact, the same as creating roles for actually under represented demographics such as the Hispanic, Black, or Asian female. Despite the fact Hispanics respectively make up 17% of the U.S. population, Blacks 13%, and Asians over 5%,  women of these ethnicities are only represented on screen 4% (Hispanic), 11% (Black), and 4% (Asian). In addition to the human LGTB couples, there is also a sort of nod to gay couples with the Alpha and Beta wolf characters voiced by comediennes Key and Peele. They’re obviously two male wolves, but they fall in love with the baby when they see it and want to become co-parents. So, while Storks does an excellent job of depicting every kind of ethnicity and demographic as possible in the babies themselves and their parents, there is more than a fair 3.8% of gay couples represented.

In an interview, Kelsey Grammar remarked “… you know kids …. They’ll remember the movie almost frame by frame whereas an adult will go like oh yeah I sort of really enjoyed it, it was sweet and it surprised me, kids will get it. They’ll get it all through, and I think they’ll know the storks aren’t really bringing any babies …. I think all that stuff comes into play here. I think all kids well go I’m going to find my reason to be I’m going to find what’s right for me, I think any kid over four years old will figure that out.” Samberg commented that “I hope … whether they know it or not, are learning about the different ways a family can be constructed, and that it’s really more about being with the people that care about you more than anything else.” That kind of sums up the entirety of what this seemingly adorable movie about birds and babies is really about: it’s here to target your children into having no true north, no sense of absolute right or wrong, black or white, good or evil, but rather a high regard for “feelings.” It tells us to be, as C.S. Lewis called it in his poignant masterpiece THE ABOLITION OF MAN, “men without chests,” who are a people without virtue and any knowledge of the Good, the True, or the Beautiful. It tells us that those are the things of, in Samberg’s words, “antiquated” communities and forgotten fairytales of the past. But, the human heart is, above all, deceitful. Feelings come and go, but truth does not. This is Hollywood trying to play inception with your children’s minds, and they’re telling you they’re doing it to your faces. The question is, what will we do to prevent them from accomplishing this twisted goal?

So let’s break it down. This film does not believe in traditional family. It’s pro-LGBT. It’s anti-capitalist. It’s anti-traditional gender roles. It’s crude, lewd and has an agenda. It wants to teach your children there is no absolute truth when it comes to whom you should or shouldn’t love or what family means, which is the antithesis of two of the most fundamental Biblical truths that have existed since the beginning of Creation. Storks says that love is whatever or whoever you want it to be, even if it defies biology or natural law, even if it sounds crazy, because, in the words of The Beatles, “love is all you need.” And, that should terrify you.