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.
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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.