It’s reasonable to assume that the plotline for Jimmy Hayward’s “Free Birds” – a film about two turkeys who travel back in time to stop their brethren from being put on the menu at the first Thanksgiving – could just be the wackiest thing about the animated feature, that somehow its creators and cast will play the rest of the thing straight, simply because its very story is as nutty as a pecan pie. This is a deeply incorrect assumption. “Free Birds” is delightfully strange, the cinematic equivalent of a holiday potluck, packed with the delicious and the inspired, coexisting peacefully next to the distasteful and the weird. It is, at the very least, unexpectedly satisfying.
Shunned by his flock of bird-brained turkeys, smart cookie Reggie (voice by Owen Wilson) all but accidentally becomes the president’s pardoned turkey, thanks to a literal shove out the henhouse door by his supposed family and the president’s own overeager (though possibly narcoleptic) daughter. As the pardoned turkey, Reggie takes up residence at Camp David – literally inside the main house - where he spends his days ordering copious amount of pizza delivery and watching brain-rotting telenovelas that he relates to in increasingly more alienating ways (his favorite is about a cast-out orphan who sees himself as a “solo lobo”). What Reggie really wants (of course) is to be a part of a flock, even if that means letting go of his self-styling as his own “solo lobo,” and so the appearance of the buff and bizarre Jake (voiced by Woody Harrelson) may come as a surprise to Reggie, but not to the audience (little about the film’s plotting should come as any shock, actually).
Jake’s sudden appearance in Reggie’s life is just the start of a personal quest – egged on by “The Great Turkey,” a spectral being who appeared to a young Jake, the nutty turkey believes he and Reggie are destined to go back in time to the first Thanksgiving to take turkey off the menu. And, yes, it’s very convenient that the U.S. government is just about to test a new time machine in the vicinity of Camp David (though perhaps not as convenient as we may initially suspect). While the time travel mechanics of the film are quite questionable – a third act reveal about how it works is actually somewhat smart, even though it’s presented in a very confusing manner that’s best left unexamined, lest audiences bend their brain into shapes they’ll never untangle – it gets the job done, and includes the vocal stylings of the very funny George Takei as the actual egg-shaped device that lands the two turkeys back in the seventeenth century.
Once in Plymouth Rock, the pair encounters both native turkeys and interloping humans, and the battle to remove turkey from the menu for good begins. The film’s styling of the past turkeys as Urban Outfitters versions of Native Americans (they’ve got feathers in their hair – uh, their feathers? – and war paint on their faces) is an uncomfortable turn, but they are otherwise treated respectfully (yes, we’re examining inappropriate cultural traits ascribed to animated turkeys). It doesn’t hurt that the film makes a surprisingly understated choice in its second half that’s pretty progressive when it comes to equal opportunity leadership (thanks to the work of the chief’s smart daughter, Jenny, as voiced by Amy Poehler).
Unlike Reggie, the past flock understands that their future lies with their family – especially their chirping, jumping coterie of baby turkeys, all of who resemble Furbies, both strangely and adorably enough – but will Reggie be able to learn that lesson? And does Jake maybe already secretly know it, based on a horribly traumatic event from his own chickhood? Oh, come on, you already know the answer.
“Free Birds” obviously cribs from other works – the nods to “Avatar,” of all things, start early and keep on coming – but it’s so delightfully weird and bizarre that those elements are very nearly forgivable. The film is crammed with very strange and very amusing gags that have the sort of cross-generational appeal that plenty of other animated films aim for (in short, can you take little ones to see the film and still be amused as an adult?), and it hits those marks with ease. (It is important to note, however, that the film is rated PG, not G, and its scenes of “action/peril” are certainly deserving of a tougher rating – this one is not for the littlest kids in your care.) “Free Birds” has plenty of jokes about butts, but it’s also got clever little bits about modern culture (it gleefully pokes fun at cinematic tropes, even while employing them), and it generally clucks right along thanks to it.
The film’s style of animation makes all of the turkeys appear, at turns, adorable, fuzzy, charming, proud, and (stay with us here) just kind of buff, while the humans look far more crude and poorly conceived by comparison, a potentially incisive bit of commentary on their actions, but one that ultimately comes off as fortuitous happenstance. Voicework suits Wilson, especially when it comes to Reggie, who seems like the exact sort of character Wilson would play in human form. Harrelson and Poehler both inject charm into their feathered counterparts, and the recognizability of such talent goes a long way to up the adult appeal of this one. The gag of the production may wear thin over time, but “Free Birds” is a more than worthy (and weird) holiday diversion for the whole family.
It's turkey time. Gobble gobble.
SCORE: 7.6 / 10