Turkeys travel through time in order to right a historical wrong in Free Birds, a charming animated movie that is more radical and subversive than it lets on.
The first feature-length project from Dallas-based indie studio Reel FX, Free Birds is a strong and sturdy affair that is enlivened considerably by director Jimmy Hayward’s off-beat sense of humor. Owen Wilson voices Reggie, a skinny turkey who is constantly encouraging his fellow free-range birds to look around and realize that Thanksgiving is the worst day of the year, that the farmer actually is not their best friend. But then he is whisked away to Camp David when the daughter of the President of the United States picks him to be the beneficiary of the annual turkey pardon.
Reggie quickly comes to enjoy being “the pardoned turkey,” becoming fat and lazy as he sits around watching television and ordering pizza as the privileged pet of the President’s very young daughter. But then he is whisked away by Jake (voiced by Woody Harrelson), a somewhat delusional turkey who believes that Reggie is the key to freeing turkeys from their eternal bondage as the featured item on the Thanksgiving menu. To accomplish this, Jake and Reggie make use of a secret government time machine in order to travel back to the first Thanksgiving in colonial America.
The humor is extremely silly, of course, and aimed squarely at pre-pubescent young people, but the story is filled with gentle slapstick and good-natured knockabout antics. The plot is a bit convoluted, yet it’s easy enough to follow, with the basic theme — get turkeys off the menu — restated every so often as a reminder. Therein lies the subversive aspect: this is a movie about a great American holiday that, ultimately, advocates a radical vegetarian menu! (Or, at least, one that doesn’t feature meat of any kind.)
Reggie and Jake travel in a friendly, egg-shaped capsule operated by an artificial intelligence called S.T.E.V.E. and voiced by George Takei. He gets a lot of mileage out of his stentorian approach to voice work, but his maturity is a kindly authority that gives shape to the nebulous plans of Reggie and Jake. As soon as they’re back in colonial times, Reggie is instantly smitten by Jenny (Amy Poehler), the take-charge daughter of the tribal leader of the turkeys, Chief Broadbeak (Keith David). The tribe has a distinctly Native American vibe, which contrasts nicely with the pilgrims, epitomized by the lower-class British tones of nasty hunter Myles Standish (Colm Meaney).
Hayward, an animation veteran who previously directed Horton Hears a Who! before into live-action with the disastrous comic book adaptation Jonah Hex, returns quite successfully to the animated field. Like the humor, the pace is gentle, but the film as a whole is well-divided between present-day antics, an extended (and somewhat wondrous) time travel sequence, and then the bulk of the action in colonial times, with a dextrous action scene that resolves the differences between the turkeys and their would-be human overlords.
Free Birds is, primarily, a delightful film for children, but that needn’t scare away older people, especially those who are open to dietary alternatives to scarfing down turkey on Thanksgiving Day. On their first feature-length try, Reel FX has delivered a winning picture.
The film opens wide across the Metroplex on Friday, November 1. Visit the official site for more information.