Let’s face it: Thanksgiving is the least commercial of the big five holidays. You don’t get to go out and beg for candy or drink your cares into the promise of a new beginning, and the only gift you give or receive is that of thanks. It’s why the stores all but ignore it and why (with the exception of the hysterical classic comedy, Plains, Trains and Automobiles) there are very few memorable films based around the holiday. It doesn’t sell. The new animated film, Free Birds (dubbed the “greatest turkey movie ever made,” which isn’t much of an endorsement, as it doesn’t really have any competition for the title to begin with), tries to go against that point, but ultimately fails. It’s not a terrible film, it’s just not one you’ll remember after passing out from all that delicious turkey that will never be taken off the menu.
Owen Wilson voices Reggie (the only “smart” turkey around) who tries to convince all of the other turkeys that the farmer’s are only fattening them up so they can eat them. The turkeys quickly offer Reggie up as the next casualty only to watch him become pardoned by the President and given a nice cushy home at Camp David. But before he can fully settle in, Reggie is kidnapped (or should that be, bird-napped) by Jake, a conspiracy nut who believes he’s been chosen by the “The Great Turkey” to go back in time and “take turkeys off the menu.” Thus begins the adventure to save the original Thanksgiving turkeys from the menacing Myles Standish and his urge to kill as many turkeys as possible to include in the feast between the Pilgrims and the Indians.
There are definitely some good ideas peppered throughout the film. The alpha-male competition between Jake and Leatherbeak (the turkey chief’s son and apparent heir to his leadership) gives us a secondary “love story” that juxtaposes the primary one between Reggie and Leatherbeak’s sister, Jenny (voiced with playful authority by Amy Poehler). While they fall for each other in typical cinematic fashion, Jake and Leatherbeak steadily build a brotherly, respectful friendship through their constant power plays. The time-traveling aspects are also fun enough, providing some clever (if not routine) twists to the movie as a whole. The problem is, it all seems rather familiar, and in some ways, ordinary. It’s as if we’ve all seen it done before (and for the most part, we have), giving the movie the quality of a *yawn*.
One reason for this is the extensive narration and exposition. It probably isn’t any different, or more elaborate, than most other films, but for some reason, here they feel very heavy and overused, disconnected in a way from the style of the story that made them far more apparent than they should have been. It bogs the movie down so much that the actual character development and action set pieces felt more like after thoughts and filler rather than the main course. It doesn’t help that you have to wait until after the main credits at the end of the film to get the best laugh. It all adds up to make the movie wildly inconsistent.
Take Jake for example. Woody Harrelson does a great job with his voice work, but the character is an enigma. He’s supposed to be a half-wit with a heart of gold and the brawn to match, and though he’s not so dumb that he becomes annoying, he isn’t dumb enough to be hysterically funny. The writer, Jimmy Hayward, makes it seem as though Jake is a lot smarter than he appears to be and can truly lead this ragtag team of “wild” turkeys, but at the same time, he wants you to believe that he’s just another dumb turkey that doesn’t understand what up is. It immediately made me think back to how the team at Pixar handled Dory in Finding Nemo, and how incredibly consistent they made her—she was nothing but a one-note character that worked because they were able to fully develop her into a three-dimensional character. I was hoping for the same with Jake (especially since Hayward, who also directed Free Birds, was an animator on Finding Nemo), but he couldn’t quite hit the mark.
Which goes for the rest of the lead characters as well, who, along with most of the story, all fell just a bit too flat. In fact, the funniest characters in the movie are the secondary and minor characters who all have maybe five minutes of screen time tops. I’m talking about the President’s daughter, with her narcoleptic tendencies, the time machine (voiced wonderfully by a George Takei, despite the minor quibble of being able to communicate with the turkeys even though it’s set-up early on that the turkeys don’t actually speak English), and the governor of Plymouth Rock, Bradford, who tells everyone they must starve to conserve food while it’s pretty obvious he’s been enjoying all of it for himself. The writers do try to throw in a team of HAZMAT characters reminiscent of Gru’s minions in Despicable Me, but it only goes to accentuate the regurgitation of what was originally funny about those particular cute little yellow blobs.
In the end, Free Birds is one of those movies that can definitely entertain the kids for a couple of hours, but won’t become a classic, must-see tradition. It’s just another way to mindlessly pass the time between eating all of your chocolates and ripping open your Christmas presents.
My Grade: B
Next week, new movies include Thor: The Dark World and About Time. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.