Some people say we have a glut of animated films in theaters these days. And in a way they’re right. If they were all enjoyable films I don’t think we would have so many complaints. When was the last time you heard anyone say “We have too many good live action movies these days”? So the real complaint is there are too many bad animated films coming out. While the big studios like Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks get some of this, it’s mainly films from other studios that get the bulk of the blame. So when a new film from a small, unproven studio is released at the end of what has already been a busy year for animated films, maybe it’s easy to just start firing off the complaint about “glut” without giving it a chance. And that’s as wrong as your mom’s Thanksgiving sweet potato and marshmallow casserole.
Reggie is a turkey who has always been an outcast. When he figures out what humans want with his kind, he can’t get anyone to believe him. Luckily his ticket out of this life comes in the form of the annual Thanksgiving presidential pardon. Separated from the rafter that shunned him, Reggie starts living the good life on his own — pizza, tv, fuzzy bathrobes! But all that comes to an end when he’s recruited/kidnapped by another turkey named Jake, who needs him to join him on a time traveling mission to the very first Thanksgiving.
You have to admit, Free Birds has a clever concept — time traveling turkeys trying to get their kind off the menu. And, despite being a bit too predictable and a little too long, for the most part the story delivers. The first two acts are especially solid. While the film rushes to get to the time machine, the setup before then is actually one of the best parts of the movie. I can see why the trailers used so much of that footage. The contrast between Reggie’s introverted wariness and Jake’s maniacal tenacity make just about any situation they get into a chance for hilarity. Once they make it back to the 1600s, things settle a bit as we get into moving the plot forward and introducing the cast of characters. Reggie and Jake meet a band of wild turkeys, including the chief’s children — Ranger, a doppelgänger and foil of Jake, and Jenny, the obligatory love interest for Reggie. As the man with the gun hunting turkeys, Myles Standish here becomes the antagonist, and most of the rest of the film is the turkeys trying to get the better of him and his men. We do get some nice backstory and character development too. As clever and as fun as the film began, things start to drag and fall apart near the end. But let’s be honest: how could it not. Your two choices are (1) turkeys stay on the menu and you need to come up with a reason to explain why the whole story hasn’t been for naught, or (2) turkeys are off the menu and you have to rewrite the history of and current celebration of Thanksgiving. Neither makes for a particularly great finale. And the choice the filmmakers go with seems a little too silly. Fortunately, since there’s enough humor in the film and the movie never takes itself too seriously anyway, it’s easily laughed off.
This is the first feature film from Reel FX and you probably couldn’t tell. While it’s true that in 2013, the tools to produce quality animation are just about available for anyone, you still have to put in the effort. And the studio has shown here they can do the work. There was a bit of a cookie-cutter feel to everything — a unique world wasn’t created just for these characters to inhabit. In a similar vein there was also a lack of variety in the character designs. But an overall fine first outing.
What really brought the film together was the acting by Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson. They took the odd couple routine and ran with it with hilarious results. Harrelson was especially effective, perfectly playing both dumb but sincere, and making Jake a character you couldn’t help like. Amy Poehler doesn’t get much of an opportunity to shine, but does a solid job with what she’s given. Colm Meaney and Keith David give good if forgettable performances in their roles as Standish and the chief. There are some standouts among the smaller parts. Dan Fogler is a lot of fun as Governor Bradford. Director/writer Jimmy Hayward shows off his triple threat skills voicing Ranger. And George Takei gets plenty of laughs as the time machine.
Free Birds may not be the main course on our animated menu this year. But with a clever idea, a fun story, and some hilarious performances, it definitely earns its place at the table.
November 1, 2013
directed by Jimmy Hayward