BY AMBER KELLY-ANDERSON
Free Birds, the new animated Reel FX film, features a disclaimer title card warning the audience that the following events are not historically accurate, save the talking turkeys. What the card fails to mention is that the events are also joyless, misdirected, and sometimes incoherent. It’s all turkey with no stuffing.
Creating a holiday movie for children based around an icon that dies as part of that holiday is a tough sell. Free Birds tries to vault the ‘dead turkey’ hurdle by giving us Reggie (Owen Wilson), a smart, blue-headed gobbler who, unlike his farm cohorts, is aware of the gruesome end awaiting them. When Reggie is selected by the United States President as the pardoned turkey, he transitions to a life of pizza, bunny slippers, and telenovela. Trodding the path to complacency, Reggie meets Jake (Woody Harrelson) a meathead turkey who believes he is on a mission from the Great Turkey to travel back in time with Reggie, stop the first Thanksgiving, and alter the future for turkeys everywhere, taking them off the menu.
The premise of the movie, that Jake and Reggie can change the staple of Thanksgiving, is ludicrous enough to begin with, making it even more confusing as to what it is actually trying to say. Modern day turkeys are shown as lazy and stupid. The turkeys of the past are somehow equated with Native Americans in their dress and speech, not in a meaningful way, but in a borderline racist way. Is the movie a vegetarian manifesto? Not really. The ultimate ‘solution’ to eating turkeys not only doesn’t make sense, but doesn’t resolve the film in any way beyond gimmick.
Wilson is still coasting on his McQueen voice-work, although Reggie is an arrogant slacker who rests on his intellect rather than his speed. Harrelson’s Jake is actually given more emotional content than Reggie and Harrelson does well, even when the screenplay only gives him lame lines about his pecs and glutes. Totally wasted is Amy Poehler who plays smart, would-be leader of the past turkeys. She is fine as the love interest/tough girl, but Poehler’s wit and timing are not utilized.
While kids may enjoy the beautifully plumed protagonists, the time traveling aspects of the film are muddy enough to be confusing (I explained it to my daughter by telling her it was like Back to the Future I and II. Then she understood). Perhaps the only saving grace is the presence of George Takei as S.T.E.V.E. the Time Machine. It’s a gag that, given Takei’s recent surge of popularity, will please the parents who are scrabbling for moment of redemption from an otherwise lacklustre 90 minutes.