Film Review: Free Birds

A glittery cast of well-known voices can't do enough to elevate this computer-animated disappointment.

To call Free Birds a turkey seems all too easy—and yet it’s irresistibly apt. Mostly witless, with mostly run-of-the mill computer animation, this holiday family fare will impress and entertain only the youngest children, while parents will spend long stretches of running time awaiting those plays on words and pop-culture references intended especially for them. The rewards are few and far between.

If you thought that a movie about two present-day turkeys who time-travel back to the first Thanksgiving to take turkey off the menu forever sounded like a bit of a stretch, you might be surprised to learn that the basic story arc holds up better than expected. But the premise is the least of the problems, in a movie full of quips and sight gags that land with a thud, narrative momentum that ebbs and flows, and characters who never radiate much charm nor acquire much dimension—even when seen through 3D glasses.

It’s not that these filmmakers were just mailing it in. (Can you ever really mail in an animated film?) If anything, they were trying too hard to come up with fun stuff. But you can’t just force inspiration, or creativity, or a sense of humor. They’re either there or they aren’t. Too often in Free Birds, they aren’t.

It starts out promisingly enough, with reluctant hero Reggie (Owen Wilson) getting all but shunned by his flock for trying to tell them the truth behind why they’re being pampered (read: fattened) on their idyllic farm. Oh, the irony when he’s the one who is yanked from their midst and transported to the White House lawn, where the President (voiced by director Jimmy Hayward, for some reason doing a mean Bill Clinton impression) anoints Reggie as the annual “pardoned” Thanksgiving turkey. As plot turns go, it’s not quite clever, but it’s at least cute. Don’t get too used to that.

The filmmakers hit their creative peak in the subsequent act, during which Reggie kicks back in his own little Camp David suite, scarfing down pizza and watching telenovelas well beyond the attention span of the First Daughter, whose apparent ADD, interspersed with instant narcoleptic nod-offs, are the funniest bit in the movie. But you know what they say about all good things. Before the relative hilarity even has a chance to wear thin, Reggie is whisked away in the dead of night by Jake (Woody Harrelson), a self-described member of the Turkey Freedom Front. Strong and stalwart, if not too bright, Jake claims that the “Great Turkey” appeared to him when he was a child, telling Jake that his destiny was to go back through the centuries and prevent the Pilgrims from serving turkey to their Native American guests on that first harvest celebration. The Great Turkey never mentioned why serving turkey on the second annual celebration might not just as easily start an enduring tradition. And being, let’s just say it, stupid, Jake never asked. So it’s off to pre-Colonial Plymouth in a talking time machine named S.T.E.V.E. And off the movie goes, headed for trouble.

Once back in 1621, the filmmakers pretty much wing it, positioning Reggie and Jake as awkwardly out-of-their-element newbies, developing their survival skill on the fly with the help of alpha-male wild turkey Ranger (Hayward again) and his sister, the whip-smart, slyly flirty Jenny (Amy Poehler, delightfully giving life to the movie’s best-developed character). Relationships sort of form but, really, most of the movie’s midsection is devoted to various chases, raids, rescues, and the dodging of much Pilgrim shotgun fire, all of which involve plenty of pratfalls—the filmmakers’ default slapstick punch line. Alas, it’s never so beautifully simple as a Wile E. Coyote extended swan dive off a cliff. Indeed, kids will need all their fingers and toes to count the number of tree limbs and rocks Reggie bounces off while trying to navigate his way around the forest.

But redundant as they are, these freefalls at least make a certain amount of kinetic sense—unlike a decidedly odd set-piece in which Jake and the egotistical Ranger let their ongoing one-upmanship go out of control during a bout of dueling hand signals that escalates into a flurry of face-slapping (another go-to gag here), and then segues into a dance number that culminates in an impromptu waltz. For examples of the aforementioned trying too hard, look no further than right here.

As for verbal wit, consider this zinger, mouthed by a Native American bystander, as the oppressed turkeys amass in the mist to attack the Pilgrim settlement, like so many foot soldiers in a Kurosawa battle scene. “Those are some angry birds,” says the sage observer. This is as good as it gets.

The ensuing battle between birds and the meat-eating minions of the dreaded Myles Standish (a cliché of mustached evil in the Captain Hook tradition, voiced by Colm Meaney) conforms to the recent, increasingly annoying tradition of ending even the silliest comic romps with a big, explosive action movie climax. The only thing that makes it worth watching is some truly artful animation during the build-up to the big battle—especially during a fiery great escape that involves a noble sacrifice, and then a funeral ceremony that ends in a windswept swirl of feathers ascending heavenward. It’s visual poetry that may or may not be lost on young audiences who have suddenly found themselves not laughing.

Free Birds tonally lurches back to its brighter side just in time for a suitably happy ending—but not before you feel you’ve been pulled all over the place by a narrative that could have used a little restructuring, along with a little tightening. Not that this would have helped the parchment-thin characterizations or the tone-deaf ear for dialogue, or the obligatory kid-friendly message. The moral of this story: Everyone needs to find a place where they feel they belong.

In family fare these days, such messages are almost as obvious as the accompanying action-packed endings. But almost without fail, messages are a good thing. It’s just that this one feels so rote, so hollow—so obligatory. It’s about the only place in this movie where the filmmakers don’t seem to have been trying hard enough.