Poultry and tradition and the secret lives of turkeys — that’s what’s on the menu in this animated butterball about America’s family and feasting holiday. You can’t argue with the film’s angle about the big birds wanting to live. After all, how would you feel if all you did was gorge out on death row and pray that your number doesn’t get called as the calendar flips from October to November each year? But rescripting history and prominently featuring death and violence in nearly every frame, which Free Birds does, is hardly the secret to a great kiddie flick.
Not that Free Birds is all stuffing and no trimmings. The 3D animation is crisp and vivid, and there are some quirky touches wittily infused into the script by writer/director Jimmy Haywood (Horton Hears a Who and Jonah Hex). The most cheeky and rewarding of these is the inclusion of Facebook humor sensation and former Enterprise crew member (Sulu) George Takei as the voice of S.T.E.V.E (Space Time Exploration Vehicle Envoy), a top-secret military time machine. Also adding to the humor is the presidential first daughter as a willful and rambunctious tyke who suffers bouts of narcolepsy.
It may be hard to tell what any of this has to do with turkeys and Thanksgiving, but rest assured this film is all about the birds. Free Birds opens amidst a flock of nervous turkeys shuttered in a dark barn debating who’ll be next. One intrepid gobbler, Reginald (voiced by Owen Wilson) makes a call for solidarity and for all to repel the oncoming farmers. For his efforts, he’s offered up as the sacrificial lamb. Luckily though, his destiny is a trip to the White House where the Reagan-looking, Clinton-sounding president pardons the young tom and relegates him to the confines of Camp David, where he settles into a coddled life of watching cheesy Latin soap operas on cable and ordering pizza from a stoner delivery boy.
Things can’t get any better, but then Jake (Woody Harrelson) shows up, a flighty feathered agent of the T.F.F. (Turkey Freedom Front). He claims he’s seen the “Great Turkey” and that Reggie must come back across time with him to stop the first Thanksgiving and save all turkeys forever. Reggie thinks Jake is nuts — and rightfully so — because Jake, while big and imbued with platoon leader-like bravado, can’t stream together a single solid conscious thought. Reggie reluctantly signs on for the quixotic quest and in a bit of happenstance, the two uncover a secret silo and S.T.E.V.E., who whisks the toms back to 1621, three days before the first Thanksgiving.
You’d think the turkeys of old would be the wild, awkward fliers that grace the bourbon bottles of today, but not so. They’re just as grounded as today’s doughy, domesticated birds. And to evade the settlers’ muskets and dogs, they have taken to the trees like monkeys and, like gophers, have built a subterranean colony in a cliffside of the Plymouth shore.
In addition, Haywood and company render Gov. Bradford (Dan Fogler) as a plump buffoon and Myles Standish (Colm Meany) a sneering master of the hunt. If your kids are looking for a history lesson from this, be prepared to do mucho explaining.
Bizarre as this “stop Thanksgiving, save the turkeys” bit may sound, there is some historical justification for the treatment. As you can find in the Smithsonian’s annals, Edward Winslow, an English leader who attended the first Thanksgiving, wrote, “Our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.” It seems our pilgrim forefathers were the original American over-consumers.
Ironically, the hunted birds in Free Birds can be seen as stand-ins for Native Americans, hiding in order to survive the invading enemy’s superior firepower while they plot ways to reclaim their land and way of life. Actual Native Americans, however, are nearly nonexistent in Haywood’s farcical fantasy. The one mention they get is that Bradford believes they are the key to reversing Plymouth Plantation’s ills, as the settlers have yet to learn how to work the land and are starving. In one fairly unfunny scene, someone actually does keel over dead from hunger.
Probably the grimmest scene, however, is the flashback to young Jake’s existence in a caged turkey factory, where thousands of fattened and immobile birds sit in muted gray cages. It oddly evokes connotations of the Holocaust, which is a yet another unsettling thing about this film. The turkey chicks in the “nursery” might induce some “awws,” and Amy Poehler as the hen babe who sets Reggie’s tail feathers on edge, endears too — but, in the end, this freeform history lesson is a flightless foul.