Two turkeys travel back in time to get turkey off the menu at the first Thanksgiving and save millions of their brethren countless generations to come. No, it’s not some elaborate joke. It’s the plot of the new animated film, Free Birds. This is what feature animation has come to in an age where animated films flood the market, vying for the attention of children and parents with little concern for quality on any level. Time-travelling turkeys. Points for originality, I guess?
There’s some nuance to the story, of course. Reggie (Owen Wilson) is a turkey with a blue head that looks different and is smarter than all everyone around him. At the start of the film he becomes that year’s presidentially pardoned turkey and the First Daughter’s pet. Everything is going swimmingly until he meets Jake (Woody Harrelson), a big, bulked up bird convinced he’s on a mission to go back in time and save all the fallen turkeys. Reggie doesn’t believe him, but is quickly proven wrong, soon ending up in a talking time machine (George Takei) and headed back to the first Thanksgiving. Once there, the two fall in with the wild turkey crowd, including—obvious love-interest—Jenny (Amy Poehler) and her father (Keith David), and get involved in an attempt to lead a revolt against the Pilgrims. Among those Pilgrims is maniacal hunter Myles Standish (Colm Meaney), who becomes intent on gathering and killing the entire turkey population.
What follows is an absolutely strange film that never quite knows how to balance its parts, often ripping off better animated films. There’s a smattering of Disney’s Pocahontas, especially with the Pilgrim characters. Then there’s the destruction of the turkeys’ home under a tree, instantly bringing to mind Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. Somewhere in the midst of all the chaos, one sequence attempts the pathos of The Lion King, right down to Hans Zimmer-esque musical score and floating leaves.
Maybe the most bizarre element of the story is casting the wild turkeys essentially as Native Americans. It’s a connection the film tries to draw upon, I believe, to imply in a not-so-subtle way that the genocide of North America’s native population is analogous to the mass farming and slaughter of turkeys every year leading up to Thanksgiving. It’s an idea I’m sure the filmmakers thought was very progressive, but it’s actually quite insulting, and adds a degree of discomfort to the whole enterprise.
The screenplay, by Jimmy Hayward and Scott Mosier, basically plays to the lowest common denominator, making all the mistakes that Dreamworks long ago moved away from. Hayward’s direction is similarly listless. The movie doesn’t even look very good, which is a real problem when companies like Pixar are putting out such high quality animation. It looks utterly lazy.
The voice cast apparently recognized that laziness and bring absolutely nothing. Owen Wilson, who actually did some excellent voice work in Cars, completely phones it in. Most depressingly, Amy Poehler is completely bland. In fact, her personality is so subdued that it was only near the end of the film that I finally figured out it was her voice all along.
Not funny, ugly to look at, filled with awful product placement, boring voice work, and mildly insulting historical parallels, Free Birds is a failure through and through. The writing was probably on the wall when the premise was “time-travelling turkeys,” but a quality script, some effort in the visuals and more solid direction might have made it all work. Sadly, not a one of those is present and the result is something parents and children would be wise to avoid.