Written by Scott Mosier and Jimmy Hayward
Directed by Jimmy Hayward
The new animated film Free Birds lives in a strange purgatory of concurrently trying way too hard and not trying nearly hard enough. Though its high-concept hook—turkeys go back in time to right before the first Thanksgiving to devise a way for the settlers to not dine on their feathered brethren at the inaugural feast—is admittedly not something animation studios have tried before, the execution is tired, manic, exhausting, and nonsensical. On one hand, it’s extremely easy to look at the film and poke holes in its logic, but then, this movie appears to be made by people who buy into the mentality that animated movies don’t need to work very hard, as long as they distract children for 90 minutes with bright colors and loud noises.
Owen Wilson provides the voice of Reggie, a rare member of his species, in that he seems to be the only one in his flock aware that turkeys are bred to be killed and eaten by us humans. (For whatever reason, the script, by Scott Mosier and director Jimmy Hayward, doesn’t acknowledge that people eat turkey at other times of year aside from late November, but no matter.) As luck would have it, though, Reggie is handpicked to be pardoned at Thanksgiving by the U.S. President, allowing him to live in the lap of luxury; in this movie, luxury equals watching telenovelas and eating pizza from Chuck E. Cheese. All’s well until a fellow turkey, Jake (Woody Harrelson), steals him away to help free all turkeys from being led to slaughter. Obviously, the only way to accomplish that Herculean task is to steal a secret time machine buried beneath Camp David that’s being deployed for the first time by the military, take it back to November 1621, and somehow, none of this plot description is a lie or the product of a fever dream concocted by some blissed-out writer.
If Free Birds was totally committed to acknowledging the silliness of its story—outside of an opening title card voiced by George Takei, who also provides the voice of the egg-shaped time machine named Steve, because why not—it might work. But the humor in this film rarely rises above meaningless, laugh-free quips and unending pratfalls. (Reggie is slapped, punched, and thrown about a lot, almost always inspiring zero laughter.) Once Reggie and Jake make it to the time of the Jamestown settlers, they meet some surprisingly intelligent turkeys who’ve taken to living underground so they’re not used for human food. Reggie falls for the chief’s daughter (Amy Poehler), and Jake engages in a neverending cockfight (sometimes literally) with the chief’s son. That Free Birds asks the audience to care about these characters, all existing in an inherently goofy premise, is a balance it’s never able to strike. Some scenes are dripping with unearned emotion, and others are written with a tone of self-love; jokes are echoed multiple times, stretched out far beyond their expiration date, as if Mosier and Hayward are convinced they’ve crafted the funniest gags of all time.
Then, unfortunately, there is the product placement. This film is already created on a dubious premise, as most people who ate turkey at Thanksgiving last year will likely do so again this year, even if an animated movie argues against it. But what, if not turkey, should people eat on the holiday? The answer the film offers is jaw-dropping, because it seems to represent a decision made by an outside marketing executive. We all have to eat something at a family gathering, but wouldn’t it be much better if that something was a recognizable brand? That seems to be one of the morals of Free Birds, that peace and harmony can truly be achieved if differing cultures break bread that’s been stamped with a familiar company name. Even an early gag, in which Reggie and Jake look at a directory that includes directions to both the time machine and a nearby Auntie Anne’s, uses product placement not because it serves the story but because someone gave the filmmakers this check, and they can only spend it if they insert a pastry brand somewhere in the film.
Oh, and then there’s the time-travel logic, or the complete lack thereof. Different filmmakers have tackled time travel in various ways; either the butterfly effect, in which a minor change has a major impact exists, or it does not. Free Birds doesn’t want to cop to any kind of rules or logic, culminating in a scene where four versions of the same character interact with each other, and one offhandedly acknowledges that they’re breaking “about a hundred” time-travel rules. There’s no explanation for how the sole character, times four, can be interacting or why so many versions made the trek from the future to the past, and vice versa. Free Birds introduces time travel as a plot device, but has no interest in dealing with its ramifications at all.
“Yes, but who cares? It’s a cartoon for kids,” some of you may be saying or thinking. Free Birds is absolutely a movie that does not care, a lazy and uninspired affair that only wants to distract people for a couple of hours before they walk out into the light of day. Consider the alternatives to taking your children to see Free Birds: hiking, reading, playing a game, or even watching an older animated movie inside. Every time this film approaches the potential of a legitimately funny gag or intriguing character choice, it backs off, apparently more content to use its lead characters as cartoon punching bags. Free Birds doesn’t aspire to be a Pixar-esque story, or even a DreamWorks-esque one; it simply aspires to get your money and time. And to encourage you to try Chuck E. Cheese.
— Josh Spiegel