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For this former Utahn, directing the new 'Angry Birds' was a gig 20 years in the making

Thurop Van Orman, director of "The Angry Birds Movie 2," grew up in Cottonwood Heights. Michael Lewis Photography
Director Thurop Van Orman, from left, film producer John Cohen and actor Josh Gad at an event for "The Angry Birds Movie 2" in Cannes, France. John Phillips, Getty Images Europe
Silver (Rachel Bloom), from left, Bomb (Danny McBride), Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage), Red (Jason Sudeikis), Chuck (Josh Gad), Leonard (Bill Hader) and Courtney (Awkwafina) in a scene from "The Angry Birds Movie 2." Courtesy of Sony Pictures
Silver (Rachel Bloom), from left, Red (Jason Sudeikis) and Chuck (Josh Gad) in a scene from "The Angry Birds Movie 2." Courtesy of Sony Pictures
Zeta (Leslie Jones) in a scene from "The Angry Birds Movie 2." Courtesy of Sony Pictures

SALT LAKE CITY — Thurop Van Orman has been refreshing the Rotten Tomatoes page for "The Angry Birds Movie 2" a lot lately.

The sequel, which gets released nationwide on Thursday, is Van Orman's debut as a feature film director. After spending his teen years in Cottonwood Heights, Van Orman moved to California to pursue a career in animation. He's worked on cartoons like "The Powerpuff Girls" and "Adventure Time," and he created the cult classic series "The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack," which aired on Cartoon Network from 2008 to 2010.

The stakes are a little bit higher with "Angry Birds." The franchise's first movie, which came out in 2016, made more than $300 million in theaters worldwide.

"It doesn't hurt too much when (critics are) nasty — no one gives anything a free pass," Thorup said during a sit-down interview with the Deseret News. "But it's nice that overall, (the reviews have) been super positive. I'm still terrified to see what comes out."

Silver (Rachel Bloom), from left, Red (Jason Sudeikis) and Chuck (Josh Gad) in a scene from

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Silver (Rachel Bloom), from left, Red (Jason Sudeikis) and Chuck (Josh Gad) in a scene from "The Angry Birds Movie 2."

So far, so good: "The Angry Birds Movie 2's" current Rotten Tomatoes score is more than 80%. A reviewer from Variety wrote that Van Orman "brings just the right level of dippy zeal to the project, committing to extended, farcical routines that, at their most immaculately choreographed and paced, channel the pure, physical hilarity of vintage Chaplin or Sellers."

One of the movie's gags, the reviewer continued, "may just be funnier than any scene from a Hollywood studio comedy in the last year."

That's high praise for any film, let alone one whose predecessor was largely panned by critics. The sequel features a totally different writing and directing team.

"I think in the first movie they had to justify the game so much, that it's about being angry. And to make that an appealing thing is really hard," Van Orman said. "And luckily, we got to just lose a lot of that."

Van Orman said he wanted to really get in the head of the film's main character, Red (voiced by Jason Sudeikis): Why is this particular bird so angry? What is he vulnerable about? And what would force Red to really face that vulnerability?

Pursuing those themes, Van Orman said, helped them craft a story with more nuance. In "The Angry Birds Movie 2," the birds and pigs must team up with the people they like least — each other — to defeat Zeta, a power-hungry tropical eagle voiced by "Saturday Night Live" spark plug Leslie Jones.

"And I think that's a great metaphor for life," Van Orman said. "I think anyone that works in a collaborative process, sometimes it's not comfortable. And I think at the end of the day, together you can do something better than you could have done on your own."

Zeta (Leslie Jones) in a scene from

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Zeta (Leslie Jones) in a scene from "The Angry Birds Movie 2."

That collaboration has been central to Van Orman's career. Working at Cartoon Network, Van Orman helped launch a lot of careers. As those peoples' careers took off, Van Orman said he found himself consulting on their scripts, usually for free.

"Basically, I worked for free a lot of the time, and that's how I got (this movie)," he said with a laugh.

Directing an animated product means working across disciplines, with writers, animators and voice actors. Van Orman has done lots of writing, animating and acting himself. In that sense, he was the perfect fit for a franchise like "Angry Birds." The new film leverages an extensive cast of famous actors, which includes Bill Hader, Josh Gad, Tiffany Haddish and Awkwafina. Some of those actors, such as Jones, hadn't done voice acting before. Van Orman thinks his own acting experience helped Jones feel more comfortable with her new surroundings.

"And she put a lot of herself into these moments, and it was amazing and emotional, and really funny," he added.

At this point, Van Orman probably doesn't have to worry too much about the film. Animated films like this one go through a gauntlet of test screenings before they ever get released. Those screenings, he said, are "the best and worst thing in the world. Because when it doesn't work, you're just sinking down in your seat. But when it works, and people laugh, … I'll be laughing harder than anyone because the jokes are still really funny to me."