×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Free Birds’

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

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.

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

More Film

  • Whose Side Is 'Marriage Story' On?

    Whose Side Is 'Marriage Story' On? (Column)

    Do we choose sides when we watch “Marriage Story,” Noah Baumbach’s brilliant and wrenching drama of divorce? The question, on the face of it, sounds facile in a dozen ways the movie isn’t. Rarely are there winners in divorce, and there are two sides to every breakup. “Marriage Story” is a movie that reflects that [...]

  • The Letter

    IDFA: Kenyan Documentary ‘The Letter’ Debuts Trailer (EXCLUSIVE)

    Variety has been given access to the trailer for Kenyan documentary “The Letter,” by producer-director duo Christopher King and Maia Lekow, which world premieres Nov. 23 at IDFA. The film follows a young man who travels to his grandmother’s rural home when he learns she’s been accused of witchcraft. He soon discovers that the threatening letter she [...]

  • Warner Bros. Box Office

    With 'Good Liar' and 'Doctor Sleep,' Warner Bros.' Box Office Misfortunes Mount

    When Warner Bros. was crafting its 2019 slate, the studio took pains to offer more than just superhero movies. To be sure, there were lots of masked vigilantes too, but more than any of its big studio brethren, Warner Bros. was willing to take a risk on the kinds of thrillers, adult dramas, coming-of-age stories, [...]

  • Constance Wu

    Will Constance Wu Ever Watch 'Hustlers'?

    Despite her leading role, Constance Wu has never seen “Hustlers” and, spoiler alert, it’s very unlikely that she will. Wu explained why she doesn’t want to watch the film to Mindy Kaling (“Late Night”) during a conversation for “Variety Studio: Actors on Actors.” “This is crazy,” Kaling said in the beginning of the interview. “I [...]

  • Ford v Ferrari

    'Ford v Ferrari' Outmatches 'Charlie's Angels' at International Box Office

    Disney and 20th Century Fox’s “Ford v Ferrari” sped ahead of fellow new release, Sony’s “Charlie’s Angels,” at the international box office. Director James Mangold’s racing drama collected $21.4 million from 41 foreign markets, representing 67% of its overseas rollout. “Ford v Ferrari” also kicked off with $31 million in North America, bringing its global [...]

  • Mindy Kaling Constance Wu

    Mindy Kaling, Constance Wu on Working With Women Directors: 'Nothing Felt Exploitative'

    Constance Wu (“Hustlers”) and Mindy Kaling (“Late Night”) discussed the importance of women directors during a conversation for “Variety Studio: Actors on Actors.” Kaling began the interview by acknowledging how having female directors on “Hustlers” and “Late Night” benefited the films. “[‘Hustlers’ director Lorene Scafaria] doesn’t come from a place of, ‘Oh, let’s humanize this [...]

  • Mindy Kaling Actors on Actors

    Why Mindy Kaling Turned to Social Media to Find the Lead of Her Netflix Series

    Constance Wu (“Hustlers”) and Mindy Kaling (“Late Night”) explained how the internet helped expand the casting pool for their projects during a conversation for “Variety Studio: Actors on Actors.” Wu began the interview: “When I did ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and they were looking for actors, it was crazy how many people said, ‘Well, there are [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content