Free Birds, the
first feature from Relativity Media and Reel FX, is a veritable holiday fun
fest – for people whose idea of a good time is listening to Owen Wilson scream.
Like so many other recent animation heroes, Reggie (voice by
Wilson) is a misfit. He’s socially maladroit and a bit of a klutz, but a good-hearted
guy who sees what others can’t: in this case, that the turkey farm where he
lives isn’t a paradise run for the turkeys’ pleasure. But no one will believe
him, even though he never shuts up about it.
Just as it looks like Reggie’s going to get the axe with his
flock-mates, the President of the United States arrives and declares him the “Pardoned Turkey.” The president’s jabbering little daughter whisks Reggie off
to an idyll of pizza and telenovellas
at Camp David.
The good times end with the arrival of Jake (Woody
Harrelson), who’s on a mission from “The Great Turkey” to change Thanksgiving
and get birds off the menu. With Reggie as an unwilling partner, Jake sneaks
into a secret government lab and steals a time machine module (George Takei)
that transports them to Massachusetts in 1621.
As they plot to change history, Jake and Reggie meet up with
tribe of wild turkeys led by Chief Broadbeak (Keith David). These birds have
built an underground city to escape the depredations of the Pilgrim hunters,
especially Myles Standish (Colm Meaney). Reggie immediately falls for the Chief’s
daughter Jenny (Amy Poehler).
It will surprise no one who’s seen an American animated film
in recent years that Reggie’s intial plan backfires, leading to the capture of
much of the flock. But after an improbable series of contretemps, Reggie rescues
them, redeeming himself and winning Jenny’s heart. It requires such an
overwrought scenario that four versions of the character from different times
appear one scene—which even Reggie (and the writers) admit is stretching the
bounds of credibility.
Reggie zigzags from
era to era, and delivers take-out pizza for the first Thanksgiving dinner. He’s
content to remain with Jenny and her flock in the 17th century, but Jake
leaves in the time machine, setting up a sequel, should the film sell enough
tickets and/or merchandise.
It might seem unfair to describe a studio’s first feature as
amateurish, but Free Birds is loaded
with cliches, poor decisions, elements borrowed from other films and regrettable
lapses in taste.
Reggie is essentially Flint Lockwood from the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs films
in a coat of feathers—or the hero from almost any other recent US animated film.
Is the motor-mouthed misfit coming from behind to save the day the only story American
animators can tell? Jenny is obviously modeled on Dory in Finding Nemo, but Poehler lacks DeGeneris’ effortless charm, and
the Reel Effects crew can’t match Pixar’s vivid animation. The turkey poults look like the characters in
Ralph Eggelston’s Oscar-winning short For
the Birds, but with smaller beaks.
The special effects in the time travel sequence go on much
too long and are far too elaborate for such a slight comedy. Making Myles Standish
look like the Bad Guy in a cheesy 50’s Western (although a match dangles form
his lower lip instead of a cigarette) is just odd.
Reggie watches joins the obnoxious Mexican villain in Despicable Me 2 in the 2013 gallery of outdated stereotypes. Turning
the wild turkeys into ersatz Native Americans with face paint and feather
headdresses comes across as even more tasteless. If Disney or Pixar or
DreamWorks trotted out this kind of stale ethnic imagery, there’d be protests.
If someone suggests taking the kids to Free Birds after Thankgiving dinner, stay home and do dishes
instead. It’s more fun.