The film, from director and co-writer Jimmy Hayward (who previously directed the comic-book adaptation “Jonah Hex,” to pretty awful results), really just can’t figure out what it wants to be. Is it a lighthearted buddy comedy, with two turkeys instead of humans? Is it a coming-of-age, find-yourself story, with a lackadaisical turkey finding his purpose? Is it a “Braveheart”- or even “Apocalypto”-style call to arms against the Man? Hayward tries to do it all and really accomplishes nothing unified or consistent—or, unfortunately, even that funny. Most of the jokes fell flat for the young audience at the film’s pre-release screening, and the 3-D? Totally unnecessary.
The film focuses on Reggie (voiced by Owen Wilson, of “The Internship”), a smarter-than-average turkey who is sickened by his family’s acceptance of their fate; they eat the corn their owner gives them happily, and don’t ever think about the fact that they’re being raised for food. So what if they’re Thanksgiving dinner? No one cares about Reggie’s concerns. So when he is fortuitous enough to be pardoned by the President and taken to live at Camp David as a kind of animal figurehead, Reggie takes advantage of the isolation, binging on television and delivery pizza. It’s a good life, if clearly an eventually lonely one.
But then Reggie’s leisurely existence is jarred by the arrival of Jake (voiced by Woody Harrelson, of “Now You See Me”), an older, more muscular, and far more driven turkey who is also the leader, and sole member, of the Turkeys Liberation Front. Didn’t Reggie care about his fellow turkeys once, and doesn’t he want to do so again? So together the two team up to travel back in time using sophisticated technology also housed at Camp David, S.T.E.V.E.—the Space Time Exploration Vehicle Envoy (amusingly voiced by George Takei, of “Larry Crowne”). The plan is to travel back to 1621, to Plymouth Rock, before turkeys are turned into Thanksgiving dinner. If they can encourage the turkeys to fight back, to resist becoming food, maybe they can change history.
A weird sci-fi theme for an animated children’s movie? Cool! But then Reggie and Jake go back in time and the film’s problems really begin. The turkeys back then wear facepaint, feathers (on top of the feathers they already have, you know, naturally, because they’re birds), and have names like Chief Broadbeak (voiced by Keith David, of “Cloud Atlas”)—i.e., they’re essentially Native Americans. And it’s very weird to see two characters from the future, two characters who, I suppose, could be understood as white men, going back to save these hapless “natives.”
Sure, the turkeys are fighting back against an uncaring white hunter who wants to eat them all, so they’re not entirely helpless. But there are also Native Americans trying to eat them, so why stylize the turkeys themselves as Native Americans? It’s a very weird turn, and ultimately they’re saved because of Reggie’s and Jake’s intervention—which feels historically revisionist in a somewhat entitled way.
The best part of all this, though, and what keeps the film from being utterly intolerable is Amy Poehler (of “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked”), who voices Jenny, the daughter of Chief Broadbeak. As a forward-thinking leader (who is, naturally, a bit goofy, given that this is a children’s film), Jenny is a strong female presence who counteracts a bit of the film’s patriarchy.
But even she can’t fix the film’s most ridiculous turn, which suggests (spoiler alert!) that fast food would be a better way to celebrate Thanksgiving than turkey. That ending will please PETA, but what about parents who constantly struggle with getting their children to eat right, to eat fresh foods and more protein instead of fats? With such a surge in child obesity in this country, the ending of “Free Birds” is just irresponsible—and so is a lot of the rest of the film, actually.
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