Release Date: November 1, 2013
Rating: Rated PG for some action/peril and rude humor
Genre: Animation, Comedy
Run Time: 91 minutes
Director: Jimmy Hayward
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Owen Wilson, Amy Poehler, George Takei, Colm Meaney, Keith David, Dan Fogler
Just in case you were wondering if this was a fact-based documentary, the animated holiday feature Free Birds opens with a disclaimer assuring the audience that it is a work of fiction. Considering the havoc it wreaks on history, that's a comfort. I was expecting Chicken Run with a Thanksgiving twist. Instead, I got a mean-spirited tale that left a bad aftertaste.
It's a shame the story is so lame, because the animation is so darn cute. Reggie (Owen Wilson, The Internship) is an adorable ugly duckling of a turkey. Try as he might he can't get his fellow birds to heed his Chicken Little-like warning that the farmer is only fattening them up in order to eat them. When Reggie's life is spared he goes from bullied outcast to pampered pet. The highlight of the film is watching Reggie settle into his life as a "flock of one" complete with telenovellas, delivery pizza, and fuzzy slippers. Alas, for Reggie, the good life is all too brief, as he's unwillingly thrust into a mission to go back in time to the first Thanksgiving and "get turkeys off the menu for good."
This mission comes in the form of Jake (Woody Harrelson, Now You See Me), a large not-too-bright turkey on a mission from God (or, in his case, "The Great Turkey"). Jake drags Reggie along to a secret government hideout where they take flight in a time machine with a perky personality (George Takei) and land in olde Plymouth, ready to lead their forebirds to culinary freedom.
At this point our heroes find that while modern turkeys may have had the brains bred out of them, their Early American counterparts are a different breed. Smart, organized, and able to slip through the trees like Robin Hood and his merry men, this flock isn't interested in a couple of crackpots from the future. Eventually, of course, they come on board and all the birds flock together to save each other from the dinner table.
All this seems harmless enough, but it's the tone of the film that rankles. In their efforts to save turkeykind the birds determine to use whatever means necessary, even if it means bumping off humans in the process. Mind you, considering the way people are portrayed in this movie, you can see their point. Both Pilgrim fathers and modern citizens are shown as stupid, self-centered villains. Maybe I'm too sensitive but I don't think the suffering and starvation of early settlers is something to laugh about. A pilgrim actually dies in what is apparently meant to be a humorous exclamation point to the governor's comments. It's not funny. Speaking of Governor Bradford (Dan Fogler, Mars Needs Moms), if he and Miles Standish (Colm Meaney, Get Him to the Greek) were still around, they would probably have grounds for a defamation of character lawsuit.
There's some attempt to lighten things up with a romance between Reggie and a sprightly young turkey named Jenny (Amy Poehler, Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked) but it never really gets off the ground. Despite the bad puns we expect from a kid's movie and a fainthearted attempt to make this a second-chance story, Free Birds is just depressing. The whole story is colored with the feeling of impending doom, and death actually occurs more than once. There's also a political overtone with the turkeys' dilemma a metaphor for the plight of Native Americans.
When the ending finally comes it's just dumb, and an egregious example of product placement, to boot. And don't get me started on "The Great Turkey" who is anything but holy. As Reggie is fond of pointing out, "There's no such thing as The Great Turkey," and nothing resembling moral values, either. What is here is a fair amount of name-calling, bullying, violence, and foul behavior from both man and fowl. Unless you're up for indigestion and demands from little ones to keep turkey off your holiday table, cross Free Birds off your movie menu.
- Drugs/Alcohol: None noted.
- Language/Profanity: Some name-calling (“idiot” and the like); pilgrims use "bloody" and "bleeding" as profanity.
- Sex/Nudity: The turkeys keep their feathers on but there’s a lot of close-ups of turkey behinds waggling their tails and discussions about “glutes”. A kiss is intimated just off screen between turkeys. (Since they don’t have lips, kissing must be tricky for turkeys.) Reggie is mistaken for a female turkey due to his lack of masculine physique.
- Violent/Frightening/Intense: Turkeys and humans alike are often in mortal danger. There are deaths of both people and turkeys, the latter probably too sad for small viewers. Turkeys are shown being taken off to slaughter. Plenty of chase scenes and fighting, especially turkey-on-turkey tussles. One turkey slaps another.
- Spiritual Themes: One turkey claims to have been chosen by “The Great Turkey” but another is scornful that any such deity exists. Rightfully so, as it turns out, but the underlying message is that there is no God and anyone who believes differently is stupid.