"What's important is that you stop asking me questions and agree to follow me blindly."
It seemed like an inevitability that animators would finally get around to making a Thanksgiving movie, especially since there has been a dearth of films for children centered around the holiday, and animators have yet to anthropomorphize turkeys. When the advertising began circulating for Free Birds, the first film to combine the aforementioned elements, the overall appearance of the film looked as if they weren't aiming much higher than being "The Greatest Turkey Movie of All Time." Could the film be a hidden gem or just another throwaway holiday kids movie in the vein of Hop? Read on to find out...
Reggie (Owen Wilson) is the only self-aware turkey on a farm full of birds content to get fattened up for the annual Thanksgiving slaughter. A surprise visit to the farm from the President of the United States leads to Reggie being that year's pardoned turkey, and he sets off for Camp David to live a life of solitude, away from the ignorant turkeys he was raised with. One night, he's abducted from his new home by Jake (Woody Harrelson) a turkey who tells him of his mission, to travel back in time to the first Thanksgiving and get turkeys off the menu. Jake's quest was foretold to him by "The Great Turkey," and Reggie's extreme skepticism is soon washed away when the two encounter a hidden base on Camp David that contains a time machine shaped like a giant egg.
When Jake & Reggie land in 1621 Plymouth, three days before the first Thanksgiving, they encounter a group of turkeys running from a crazed huntsman named Myles Standish (Colm Meaney), who is far from the idealistic nobleman described by Linus Van Pelt in the famous Peanuts Thanksgiving special. Jake seeks to assert himself as the leader of this group, despite its existing hierarchy, and Reggie finds himself smitten with Jenny (Amy Poehler), the daughter of the tribe's leader. This ragtag group of turkeys then sets off to aid Jake in his quest to replace turkeys as the predominant food on Thanksgiving.
First and foremost, anyone expecting this to be a revolutionary animated film will be let down by its by-the-numbers plot, but those willing to give themselves over to the film's handful of original charms may find it to be above average. Unfortunately, it doesn't really seem the filmmakers were aiming much higher than that either. Director Jimmy Hayward's previous directorial effort was 2010's abysmal Jonah Hex, and while this is certainly nowhere near that film's level of awful, it feels a bit halfhearted at times. It's the kind of film that casts George Takei as the voice of S.T.E.V.E. the time machine, and then shoehorns in his ubiquitous catchphrase "Oh My!" just before the credits roll. In short, it's that kind of movie.
There are some things that work well here, such as the time travel components, though if you're like me and couldn't get past Looper's time travel paradox that the reason for the time travel mission in the first place can't simultaneously be its catalyst, then your head will spin in a late film scene back at Camp David. The kids will eat it up though, as they're too young to be bothered by those sorts of issues. As a matter of fact, if you don't have children, I wouldn't recommend this movie at all as it just doesn't really have anything beyond a handful of clever jokes to keep the adults' attention.
The voice work here is as good as you'd expect from actors with estimable comedic chops like Wilson, Harrelson & Poehler, and they do seem to be giving it their all in spite of a script that doesn't service them equally. There's also some nice work by the smaller characters voiced by Takei, Meaney & Keith David, but nothing earth shattering. In fact, the film's biggest detriment is its script written by Hayward and frequent Kevin Smith collaborator Scott Mosier. The references to Bill & Ted will elicit nothing more than knowing grins from the adults in the audience, and much of the humor derives from just trying to please the children in the audience. It's a tightrope that every animated film aimed at kids must walk, and while this one eschews the poop & fart jokes, it doesn't make up for it with anything approaching intellectual humor.
The animation is nice, but at this point, that's to be expected. I was, however, impressed with the realism put into the portrayal of the camp of the first English settlers in America. It didn't seek to sanitize their living conditions in the way that so many accounts of this time period aimed at children have done, but it didn't have any real edge to it beyond providing a reason for them to be so bloodthirsty to kill the turkeys. It ultimately ended up feeling like a squandered opportunity. I must also add that I'm always at least partially pleased when a children's film has the gall to kill off a character and not resurrect them in the third act, so I must at least give the filmmakers due credit for that decision. That death helped the other characters to grow and didn't shy away from the permanence of death, which is actually much more helpful for children to understand.
I don't expect Free Birds to light the world or the box office on fire-- the first showing today had a total of seven people in the audience-- but parents with movie hungry kids will find the film to be a halfway decent ninety minute distraction, and their kids will eat it up. I would have liked something a bit more substantive, but not every studio is committed to making wholly edifying family entertainment anymore, and that's unfortunately the reality of the world we live in. Free Birds is decent enough but it could have, and frankly should have, strived to be so much more than the greatest turkey movie ever made.
GO Rating: 2.5/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]