Free Birds: It’s Turkey Time
By Sandra Olmsted
An animated film about turkeys revolting against being eaten seemed likely to have the same effect as the Thanksgiving scene in Giant, where three children cry loudly at their pet turkey being served up as dinner. Director Jimmy Hayward’s Free Birds poses no real threat to the tradition of turkey dinner or to becoming the quintessential Thanksgiving Day movie despite the lack of Thanksgiving films.
The story opens with Reggie (voice of Owen Wilson), a smarter than average turkey, warning his fellow not-too-bright turkeys that the flock is destined not for the “turkey paradise” they imagine but for the dinner table. The flock doesn’t believe him and kicks him out and into the annual turkey pardoning ceremony by the president whose narcoleptic daughter insists that Reggie be pardoned. Soon Reggie is living a lonely life of luxery at Camp David, ordering pizza and watching telenovelas about the “Solo Lobo” with whom Reggie identifies. Then Jake (voice of Woody Harrelson) kidnaps Reggie in the name of the Great Turkey and the Turkey Freedom Front. Jake’s plan involves stealing a government time machine, going back to the first Thanksgiving, and getting turkeys off the menu.
Despite the promising primus, Free Bird remains a one joke film and the punchline, — Spoiler Alert — where pizza from the future replaces the tradition turkey on the Plymouth Colony’s first Harvest Feast sends a message of processed food over fresh. The colonists being portrayed as one dimensional bad guys and terrible villains despite being hungry, threatened with starvation during the coming winter, and lead by a corrupt governor who is stealing food for himself revises the history children learn about the holiday in a disturbing way. Putting the turkeys in the guise of Native American, furthermore, leaves no room for the real Native American’s role in generously saving the first colonist or for the funnier but darker humor of the turkeys from the future looking for a different animal to replace themselves on the Harvest table. Reggie and Jake could even have promoted a vegetarian feast, which would have been in keeping with the movie’s animal-friendly message. Instead, the turkey tribe holds pacifist views which must be overcome, which muddles the story and promotes war.
In an attempt to gloss over the muddled story and the racial issues raised by the film, the writers, Hayward and Scott Mosier, add a positive feminist element by having Jenny (voice of Amy Poehler) , the daughter of Chief Broadbeak (voice of Keith David), emerge as the leader of the tribe without objection from the flock. Drawing the hunter for the starving colonists, Myles Standish (voice of Colm Meaney), in dark tones and giving him strange quirks also revises the historical elements and plays against developing the colonists as the frightened, alone group they must have felt they were. One delightful bit, the time machine, S.T.E.V.E., has a personality and mind of it’s own, and in a delightful bit of casting is voiced by George Takei of Star Trek fame as Sulu. The terrific cast make the film watchable, but, like many other ill-fated animated films, they can’t save a bad script.
While there a few big laughs for adults (stay through the credits for one more), the kids won’t have much to laugh at during the majority of the film and may be confused by the revising of history. The John-Smith-Pocahontas-type love story between Reggie and Jenny adds an additional level of muddle to a story already convoluted beyond all reason, and the controversial portrayal of the turkeys as Native Americans can, at best, be called sanitized and, at worst, racially insensitive. Although portraying the turkeys as Native Americans was probably intended to tell the history from the prospective of the Native Americans and how the colonists invaded and claimed the lands and livelihood of the native tribes, that too gets muddled in the movie.
For a quintessential Thanksgiving film that inspires hunger for turkey, the trimmings, and even the leftovers while celebrating families, the American tradition of sitting down to eat with people unlike oneself i.e. ones dysfunctional family, and being grateful for it all, I recommend What’s Cooking which is available on DVD, streaming, etc. Surprisingly this delightful vision of the most American of Holidays is directed by Gurinder Chadha, who, as Indian Diaspora in East Africa, was born in Kenya, raised in West London, and became an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2006.
Free Birds, a Relativity Media release of a Reel FX Animation Studios production, is an ambitious first animated feature for this Texas based special effects house. It is rated PG for some action/peril and rude humor and runs a somewhat long 91 minutes. Free Birds is in theaters now. (More of Olmsted’s reviews are available at <www.thecinematicskinny.com>.)
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