Review: Free Birds
PLOT: Two turkeys travel back in time to the first Thanksgiving in order to get their kind off the menu for good.
REVIEW: What a frivolous waste of time FREE BIRDS is. A rather inane attempt at creating a Thanksgiving-themed family movie (because we've all been yearning for one of those), the first animated movie from Reel FX, FREE BIRDS takes what could be a fun premise and goes nowhere with it, relying on stale gags and familiar voices to sell us a fairly glib product. It also takes the air right out of Thanksgiving, which kind of defeats the whole Thanksgiving family movie thing they were going for.
At the very least, FREE BIRDS has some fine voice talent going for it: Owen Wilson, perhaps an obvious choice but undeniably an affable one, is cast as "smart" turkey Reggie who escapes the confines of his farm/slaughterhouse thanks to a Presidential pardon, thus finding himself the pet of the President's hyperactive daughter. (The President is modeled after Bill Clinton, which gives you an idea of this movie's "hip" factor.) Woody Harrelson plays a turkey on a mission: he's been told by a mysterious turkey god of some sort that Reggie is the key to reversing the fortunes of the entire species; that is to say, to wipe out the tradition of turkeys being at the top of the annual menu. Both actors are perfectly cast; Wilson has the breezy, cocky role and essentially needs to do exactly what he did on CARS, while Harrelson is by turns forceful and goofy as Jake, who has a take-charge machismo but suffers from forgetfulness and straight-up stupidity frequently.
Jake's plan involves hijacking the government's secret time machine (which is voiced by George Takei, a nice touch), heading back in time to the first Thanksgiving and changing the holiday forever. Once back, the two birds run into a tribe of Native American-esque turkeys led by Chief Broadbeak (Keith David, can't go wrong there), along with his children Jenny (Amy Poehler) and Ranger (Jimmy Hayward, also the director). Jenny catches Reggie's eye, as she's a sassy bird, while Ranger and Jake engage in a never-ending game of alpha male one-upmanship. But all parties involved have to start worrying when the pilgrims nearby start gathering up turkeys for their upcoming feast; their main instrument in hunting down the game is Standish (Colm Meaney), who looks as if he's been modeled after "Deadwood's" fearsome saloon owner Al Swearengen.
At one point the movie becomes a strange riff on AVATAR, with the bloodthirsty pilgrims attacking the turkeys' home - which resides underneath a gigantic tree - and destroying it, kidnapping some and killing others. The turkeys even engage in a ritual sending the deceased's feathers into the sky; for a movie that has been completely and utterly flimsy for about 60 minutes, this section is as awkward as it gets, a ham-fisted (not to mention uninspired) attempt to inject pathos into an otherwise forgettable morsel. There's also an unpleasant sequence exploring Jake's origins taking place at what is basically a turkey concentration camp. If Hayward wants to skillfully mix contemplative drama in with his comedy, he needs to watch more Pixar. Or any movie that knows what it's doing tonally and narratively.
A final underlining of the movie's wrong-headedness is its silly ending (you really don't care if I spoil it, do you?), where Thanksgiving is forever altered by Reggie's switching out turkey for Chuck E. Cheese pizza, Reggie's favorite snack and clearly one of FREE BIRDS's promotional partners. Get out of here. I'm all for engaging in a dialogue about finding another way to celebrate the holiday, but this moronic plot point will even have kids scratching their heads. And speaking of the kids, the theater I saw FREE BIRDS in was filled with them, and while the movie earned its share of giggles, there was a noticeable lack of impact made on the target audience. Clearly a bad sign.
FREE BIRDS gets off an amusing joke or sight gag once in a while; there are a few obscure references, ranging from ROBOCOP and Cheech and Chong, and a handful of lines got my attention for their weird factor. ("Aw, she wants you to throw up worms into her mouth. What girl wouldn't?") The 3D is pleasant if unexceptional, not unlike the animation itself. That is not to say it's not an impressive feat anytime a movie like this is made - lord knows hundreds of people worked hard on it - but at this stage of the game, your product had better find a way to surprise and galvanize the crowd, not lull them into a state of ennui.