Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson voice two turkeys on a mission to liberate all turkeys from the first Thanksgiving in Free Birds. Is this animated comedy fun for the entire family or is it a disappointment? Jeffrey Harris checks in with his official review.
Directed By: Jimmy Hayward Written By: Jimmy Hayward and Scott Mosier Runtime: 91 minutes MPAA Rating: Rated PG
Reggie - Owen Wilson Jake - Woody Harrelson Jenny - Amy Poeher Ranger/The President/Leatherbeak/Hazmats - Jimmy Hayward Chief Broadbeak - Keith David Myles Standish - Colm Meaney Governor Bradford - Dan Fogler Amos - Carlos Alazraqui S.T.E.V.E. - George Takei
Director Jimmy Hayward returns to the world of animation with his new film, Free Birds, an oddball 3D CG animated comedy he co-wrote with Scott Mosier from a script by producers John Strauss and David Stern. Hayward was a longtime animator who worked on many Pixar features before directing his first feature in Horton Hears a Who based on the classic Dr. Seuss story. He next tried his hand at live action, directing the much maligned Jonah Hex, which needless to say did not work out very well.
Free Birds follows the story of Reggie (Wilson), an outcast among his kind and extremely self-aware of the fate of the turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. Reggie, who never felt like he belonged among his kind, gets a reprieve from his pending fate when he’s declared the pardoned turkey by the President of the United States. Soon, Reggie is living the good life at Camp David without a care in the world and all the pizza he can eat. He’s forcefully removed from his cushy environment by an uber-alpha turkey by the name of Jake. The dimwitted Jake claims to be part of the Turkey Freedom Front to save turkeys from being dinner. Reggie is none too happy to leave his new home, but Jake won’t let him go. With knowledge from the Great Turkey, Jake is able to discover a secret military base with a time machine to go back in time to history’s first Thanksgiving. They will fight against the Pilgrims and make sure turkeys are never eaten at the first Thanksgiving…alright then.
Now giving credit where it’s due, Hayward is a great animator and director. Despite not being produced by the likes of Dreamworks Animation or Pixar, the animation in Free Birds is top notch and is on par with the aforementioned studios. The eye candy, crisp designs, and environments looked. Even more impressive was that the film was done on a reported budget of about $35 million, less than half of what Hayward had to work with previously on Horton Hears a Who.
Where the movie doesn't succeed so much is the writing. The opening act is a rather disjointed mess. In less than 20 minutes, it’s as if the film sets up three different movie plots before settling on this rather unappealing time travel story. Once it gets to the time travel story, and Jake and Reggie go to the past in an egg-shaped time machine with a computer AI named S.T.E.V.E. (Takei doing Takei), the story grinds to a halt. The duo lands right in front of Plymouth Colony days before the first Thanksgiving. Reggie and Jake meet and befriend the wild turkeys of the time led by Chief Broadbeak (David). Reggie falls in love with the chief’s daughter, the lazy-eyed Jenny (Poehler), and Jake forms an odd bromantic bond with his doppelganger, Ranger, the chief’s son. Now being completely honest, as ridiculous as the plot of turkeys rebelling and trying to save themselves from dinner is, I do not think it is impossible for such a story to be good. However, the execution of the story is clumsy by making “wild” turkeys a microcosm for Native Americans, and their treatment throughout history. It’s a poorly done metaphor, complete with the 1600 turkeys having headdresses and face paint like Native Americans. It’s a move that has all the subtlety of an Anderson Silva front kick to the face.
Even more clumsy is, and this is not a trapping isolated to just this story, is the time travel loop in effect. But there is a plot twist here that’s not much of a plot twist because you can see it coming from a mile away, and the story telegraphs it in badly. To the movie’s credit, it’s a convention that other movies involving time travel has overused frequently. However, the device itself is still rather tiresome.
The movie does have some amusing laughs. The story’s antagonist are cast in the form of real-life historical figures Governor William Bradford (Fogler) and Myles Standish (Meaney). Bradford and Standish are reformed into outlandish caricatures that were actually funny. Bradford is made into a gluttonous fat cat who hoards all the food from Plymouth while the other colonists starve. Standish is made into some bizarre hybrid of Disney’s Captain Hook and Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Their designs were well done, and despite the historical accuracy, I find the idea of molding the characters in this way. Though granted, it’s not as funny as when South Park riffed Miles Standish by making him into Marvel’s Thor. Unfortunately though most of the movie’s funniest gags happen in the first act and are long gone when Reggie and Jake go back in time.
The dialogue and writing for the story is adequate but also incredibly conventional. The actors all do decent work in their roles; though none of the major characters really stand out from the pack. The story was so ridiculous and contrived, that it was hard to really root for the plight of Reggie and Jake. When Jake said he was part of some organization like the TFF, I kept waiting to see some revelation of this super-cool military band of turkeys or something. It’s just Jake though. The movie plays like it would've been better off without the time travel narrative. Ultimately, I’d like to see Reel FX and Hayward work on a project with a better story as this one didn't really live up to its potential.
The 411: Free Birds is hardly groundbreaking, but the movie is light, fluffy, and mildly entertaining. This is probably best for kids and the families for the holiday season. Reel FX did a tremendous job with the animation on a relatively small budget. The story is incredibly flawed and contrived, and doesn't bring much else to the table to ignore those elements.