Let’s get the much-obliged pun out of the way: the new animated adventure-comedy Free Birds is not a turkey of a film. It does, however, follow in the tradition of children-aimed flicks like Hop, an Easter release, and Rise of the Guardians, which earned much of its box-office leading up to the Christmas holiday last year. Yes, Free Birds is yet another film dependent on a tie-in with a holiday for relevancy and a quick buck.
The film starts on a family-owned farm where the blue-faced, small-beaked Reggie lives with a dim-witted flock of turkeys. (Owen Wilson voices Reggie, with a southern twang to tweak his voice so that kids won’t be distracted by how similar he sounds to Lightning McQueen.) Reggie realizes that with the Thanksgiving holiday quickly approaching, the flock has started to eat tons of corn as they await entrance into ‘turkey paradise.’
Reggie is a lone voice of dissent among the birds and is skeptical about the fate that will greet the rest of the turkeys during the holiday. So, he makes his way off the farm – and likely off someone’s dinner plate – when the U.S. President shows up and crowns him the “Pardoned Turkey.” From there, our blue-faced hero takes up residence at Camp David with the President and his hyperactive young daughter (Kaitlyn Maher). However, burly, red-faced turkey Jake (Woody Harrelson) plucks Reggie from the residence and recruits him to the Turkey Freedom Front. Jake wants to alter the fate of humankind and get turkeys permanently off the table as the main Thanksgiving meal.
How can Jake and Reggie ensure that turkeys are off the menu? Well, the two fortuitously come across a secret government compound with a time machine. Before a viewer can scoff at this farfetchedness, the duo hijacks the egg-shaped time machine (that has a navigation system with George Takei’s voice) and end up in Plymouth Colony, 1621, a few days before the first Thanksgiving feast.
Free Birds is charming and harmless family entertainment bound to puzzle history buffs with its various anachronisms and frustrate those with fond memories of Chicken Run, which had a similar story but superior characters and more emotional weight. The comedy also creates some problems for itself by making parallels between the film’s turkey tribe and Native Americans. On one hand, the turkeys’ colourful feathers and distinct costumes are meant to recall an indigenous population. The filmmakers’ aim is evidently to garner viewer sympathy for a frequently marginalized population but, on the other hand, comparing Native Americans to a mostly unintelligent, indecisive collective of turkeys is a tad offensive.
Free Birds also does not make a lick of sense, with time travel paradoxes and a 17th century setting that features the colonists using hunting rifles, a weapon that would not exist until two centuries later. I highly doubt that these anachronisms are meant to be jokes, unlike a cheeky disclaimer at the start of the film that tells the audience that they are about to see a work of fiction – except for the talking turkeys.
All that being said, there is something refreshing in the latest from animation director Jimmy Hayward (Horton Hears a Who!). Along with co-writer Scott Mosier, both of whom offer their voices to supporting characters, he mixes up various genres – buddy comedy, science-fiction adventure, historical drama – without losing focus on Reggie’s character. Unfortunately though, Free Birds leads up to a battle finale that is very derivative of what has come before – a major character’s death serves as the catalyst for the underdogs to band together and thwart the enemy.
The characters, meanwhile, leave much to be desired and feel like they were hatched from earlier (and more developed) fictional creations. Reggie’s family, backstory and personality feel like remnants of the Remy character from Ratatouille. Jake is a bulky alpha-male type who competes to be the most brawny turkey in the tribe, and his mix of rednecked idiocy and cockiness is an animated channeling of Harrelson’s Tallahassee character from Zombieland.
Meanwhile, Reggie gets a love interest in Jenny (Amy Poehler), the brave, autonomous daughter of the tribe’s chief whose only function is to act as a guide and inspire Reggie, before diminishing into a possible dinner in distress. This potential to stand on its own original terms, consistently thwarted by the story’s predictability, is what Free Birds mostly amounts to.
Though there are a few things to like about the film, just not enough of it ends up working. Free Birds is a frequently exciting although only intermittently funny adventure that, like factory-farmed turkeys, has too much formula.