Film Review: ‘Free Birds’

Free Birds Review

Two turkeys travel back in time to save their species from Thanksgiving in this well-animated but frankly misguided comedy.

Month-old mashed potatoes wouldn’t leave behind as questionable an aftertaste as “Free Birds,” a well-animated but frankly misguided comedy about two turkeys who travel back in time to stop their species from becoming the official national dish of Thanksgiving. In drawing a parallel between these wild birds and 17th-century Native Americans, this seemingly innocuous toon fantasy becomes another noxious-but-sanitized exercise in family-friendly cultural insensitivity. Kids won’t care, naturally, but even viewers who don’t mind (or don’t pick up on) the unfortunate subtext won’t be thrilled by the picture’s bland storytelling and overly gabby gobblers. Even with an OK opening on the table, holiday-perennial status looks unlikely for this fledgling feature effort from Dallas-based Reel FX.

Cribbing some narrative loop-de-loops from “The Terminator” and other time-travel adventures, the screenplay by Scott Mosier and director Jimmy Hayward (from a story by producers David I. Stern and John J. Strauss) initially seems headed for agreeably daffy territory. Not unlike Remy in “Ratatouille,” a movie to which “Free Birds” otherwise bears zero resemblance, Reggie (voiced by Owen Wilson) is introduced as the story’s animal-misfit protagonist, a farm turkey of above-average intelligence who alone realizes the cruel fate that awaits his flock come November.

But it’s a fate that Reggie manages to avoid when he’s chosen by the U.S. president (Hayward, channeling a young Bill Clinton) as that year’s “pardoned turkey,” benefiting from a White House tradition that some believe dates back to the Lincoln administration. Soon Reggie is living it up at Camp David, watching trashy telenovelas and eating delivery pizza, only to be suddenly kidnapped by Jake (Woody Harrelson), a bigger, tougher, kookier bird who fancies himself a spy on a dangerous mission: to rewrite history and make sure turkey never makes it onto the Thanksgiving Day menu.

And so, with the aid of an egg-shaped, government-built time machine named Steve (amusingly voiced by George Takei), Reggie and Jake zip back to 1621, just as Plymouth Colony settlers are preparing to round up all the turkeys in the area in preparation for the Harvest Feast. As Reggie and Jake attempt to motivate the generally pacifist birds to fight for their lives, “Free Birds” plays, at least initially, like a genial mashup of your average grade-school history lesson and freedom-fighter epics like “Braveheart,” padded with an obligatory love story between Reggie and Jenny (Amy Poehler), daughter of the local turkey chief, and building to a daring raid on the settlers’ weapons supply.

It all feels fanciful yet familiar, replete with all the trimmings of so many hard-working but undistinguished animated kidpics: A-list actors delivering pushy, in-your-face dialogue; dull romantic interludes; and a steady stream of action sequences meant to ensure maximum viewer engagement, albeit with none of the sly intelligence or wit of a superior poultry-themed toon like “Chicken Run.” All of which would make “Free Birds” a cute but disposable item were it not for the story’s weird racial undertow: From the turkeys’ face paint and feathered headbands to their tribal structure under the leadership of Chief Broadbeak (Keith David), the metaphor could scarcely be less subtle, even with the token presence of actual Native Americans in the background. (Presumably these are members of the Wampanoag Nation, although that’s a matter for the film’s historical consultants to sort out.)

The degree of offense taken will vary, of course, between those who see a toxic portrayal of Otherness and those whose reflexive attitude is, “Oh, lighten up, it’s only a kids’ movie.” And indeed, in the long and inglorious tradition of animated stereotyping, “Free Birds” is arguably less pernicious than, say, “Dumbo,” insofar as it doesn’t impute any ethnic mannerisms to the animals in question; it could even be argued that the film, in sympathizing with the persecuted party, has cleverly packaged America’s ugly legacy of oppression and genocide for kid-friendly consumption. Still, the likening of a gravely mistreated ethnic group to a wild animal species can’t help but strike an unwelcome note; even more off-putting, at least from the standpoint of nutrition-concerned parents, is the film’s cynical suggestion (spoiler alert!) that fast food is somehow a preferable alternative to fresh poultry.

For director/co-writer/voice actor Hayward (a longtime animator who previously directed 2008’s “Horton Hears a Who!” and 2010’s live-action “Jonah Hex”), “Free Birds” represents an obvious labor of love, and given its genesis outside the studio system, it’s an appreciably polished product. The use of 3D neither enhances nor detracts from the film’s pleasing, autumn-hued look, and the turkeys, with their large eyes and diverse array of beaks and wattles, are a nicely expressive bunch; the poults in particular, which look like fluffy, pastel-colored balls, are pretty adorable.

Film Review: 'Free Birds'

Reviewed at RealD screening room, Beverly Hills, Oct. 23, 2013. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 90 MIN.

Production

A Relativity Media release of a Reel FX Film Fund and Relativity Media presentation of a Relativity Media and Reel FX Animation Studios production. Produced by Scott Mosier. Executive producers, Aron Warner, John J. Strauss, David I. Stern. Co-producer, Alonzo Ruvalcaba.

Crew

Directed by Jimmy Hayward. Screenplay, Scott Mosier, Hayward; story, David I. Stern, John J. Strauss. (Technicolor, 3D); editor, Chris Cartagena; music, Dominic Lewis; production designer, Kevin R. Adams; supervising animator, Rich McKain; digital supervisors, David Esneault, Scott G. Peterson; head of story, Jeff Biancalana; sound designer (Dolby Digital), Randy Thom; supervising sound editor, Dennis Leonard; re-recording mixers, Thom, Gary A. Rizzo; associate producer, Geoffrey Stott; assistant director, Chris DiGiovanni; casting, Kerry Rock.

With

Voices: Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Amy Poehler, George Takei, Colm Meaney, Keith David, Dan Fogler, Jimmy Hayward, Kaitlyn Maher, Carlos Alazraqui, Jeff Biancalana, Danny Carey, Carlos Ponce, Robert Beltran, Lesley Nicol, Jason Finazzo, Scott Mosier, Lauren Bowles, Dwight Howard.

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  1. Luke says:

    oh give me a break. lighten up, this a children’s movie…. HORRIBLE review… claiming racial undertones made me read the review, but finding out (just from your poor examples you stretched to make) it was nothing of the sort, will make me be sure to never read this review site again! I’m truly sorry you feel this way about this movie…. such a cynical and angry way to go through life!

  2. Aurther Murry says:

    Opinions are like belly buttons everyone had one. I found his review horrible and tried to make substance of something he has experienced. To me this is a very trivial review from someone who should not be in his line of work. Maybe he would do better being a politicians speech writer lots of word no substance.

  3. C.P. says:

    Wow, Justin Chang is really reaching if he sees anything offensive here. Heck, they actually try to make a pro-Indian pitch here (or a pro-turkey pitch as the case may be). And I particularly like how he covers his ridiculous foray into cultural insensitivity by suggesting that anyone who might disagree with him just doesn’t get it. In fact, Chang just doesn’t get it. Not all moral messages have to be ladled on with a shovel – give kids some credit.

  4. Dave Baxter says:

    He saw the movie for what it is: frivolous and forgettable. A lesser offender than many others in terms of race, but not without its own troubling elements.

    Scwartzman: I think you lost your way in trying to comment on YouTube. Please stick to commenting there and lets aim to raise the intelligence and civility of Variety comments.

  5. A.S. says:

    Isn’t it possible that the tropes of “American Indian” the reviewer sees in the turkeys are simply an acknowledgment that the birds are also “indigenous”? That is, they, like the American Indians portrayed in the film, were there before the colonists. And if American Indians are portrayed in the film alongside the indigenous turkeys (which the reviewer acknowledges), then how can he claim that the birds are metaphors? The crows in Dumbo are so offensive (among many other reasons) because they stand-in for African Americans. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. And even if they were metaphors as the reviewer suggests, I’m assuming they somehow “win” in the end. Couldn’t that be seen as a clever anti-colonial message (which the reviewer also acknowledges but gives little credence to)? A moot point, since it doesn’t seem the reviewer is on the right track with the metaphor logic in either case. I can’t speak for the quality of film, but this seems like symbolic over-reach and a rather shallow (if not intellectually questionable) critique.

  6. Gary says:

    This review sounds like someone desperately trying to find meaning/subtext in pretty much everything. It’s an animated movie about turkeys, not Citizen Kane.

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