It’s not the fact that the turkeys talk which makes “Free Birds” so unbelievable.
I mean, it is an animated film and they tend to feature some outlandish plot devices and storylines, in which Vikings train dragons, toys come to life, and monsters live in a magical city that exists under the beds and in the closets of children. Taking this into consideration, talking animals in a cartoon movie is really not that bizarre of an idea. In fact, it’s been a pretty standard inclusion since Disney released “Bambi” and “Dumbo” over 70 years ago.
It’s the rest of “Free Birds” that struck me as strange — especially the bit about turkeys travelling through time, back to the first Thanksgiving feast, to attempt to convince Myles Standish and the rest of the colonists to eat something else during the holidays. That’s right, I said it. The turkeys travel through time using a TIME MA-CHINE.
I know what you’re thinking, it just sounds quirky enough that it might work and you would be right… except for one major detail — Owen Wilson’s voice. It just doesn’t work for me anymore. It grates on me. For some reason, I just can’t seem to be able to tolerate the high pitch frequencies, the subtle southern drawl, and the slow, deliberate cadence that his musings bring to the table. This poses a problem, since Wilson voices the main character of the proceedings, a skinny, purple-headed gobbler named Reggie.
At the start of the film, Reggie lives on a farm with the rest of the turkeys, but he’s the outsider of the flock. They even go so far as to call him the “Anti-corn.” He just doesn’t fit in. This is another common theme in animated films as well, but I digress. The reason he doesn’t get along with the other turkeys is because he’s always rambling about how the farmer is actually overfeeding the flock in order to fatten them up, so he can kill ’em, cook ’em and eat ’em later on. Of course, the rest of the flock thinks Reggie is a few cranberries short of a feast and doesn’t take him seriously. They all think the farmer is giving them luxurious, corn-filled meals, so he can take drag them away to “Turkey Paradise” when the time comes. Even the other crazy turkey in the flock, who looks sickly and deranged, thinks Reggie is out of his tiny, purple head.
But all of this is soon irrelevant, since he wanders into the President’s annual speech, in
which he pardons one turkey every year. Apparently, this is a real event that actually happens. I never heard of it, but anyway, the President’s narcoleptic daughter spies Reggie walking around and brings him up to her father to be chosen. At first, Reggie has no idea what’s happening to him, which is when the President tells his daughter that Reggie is too skinny to be the “Pardoned Turkey” anyway. Well, anybody that’s been around little girls knows that all it takes is a single, watery-eyed look for that child to get what they want and I guess the leader of the free world is not immune to these looks either. So, Reggie is whisked away on Air Force One to Camp David to live his new life as the Pardoned Turkey.
You’d think that this fish-out-of-water premise would be enough for a good story. In this instance, you would be wrong. Reggie’s time at Camp David is just the beginning of this tale. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take long for Reggie to get comfortable living in the world of the humans. He becomes addicted to watching On Demand and is particularly enamored with a character on the Telemundo-style drama called “El Solo Lobo” (The Lone Wolf), who was teased when he was young, but grew up to become a powerful, Mexican business magnate. He also has a love affair with pizza, which he proclaims to be “much better than that corn stuff.” Reggie is living the life. That is, until he has the misfortune of meeting a wild turkey named Jake.
Jake (voiced by an almost vocally unrecognizable Woody Harrelson) is the leader of the
Turkey Freedom Front (TFF), which is really only consists of Jake running around and playing super spy. Apparently, somebody (or something) called “The Great Turkey” has given him orders to find the “time machine” and travel back to the first Thanksgiving and… you know the rest. Jake kidnaps Reggie and tells him the story about the Great Turkey and, low and behold, Reggie thinks he’s nuts. It’s not hard for Jake to come off as crazy, since he’s forgetful, delusional and downright peculiar.
Well, to make a long, eccentric story short, they find the a creaky garden shed that houses a hidden elevator, which takes them down to a sub-level basement area. I’ll give you a quick guess as to what’s down in this concealed-off section. Yup… a time machine. Apparently, the President (who sounds like a cross between George W. Bush and Bill Clinton) and his cabinet are working on a top secret program which will send a “chrononaut” through space and time. After some sneaking around, the two turkeys somehow wind up in the egg-shaped time machine and are off to take on the colonists and change history for turkeys everywhere.
This time-travelling sequence is one of the most entertaining segments in the film. We are introduced to S.T.E.V.E. (Space Time Exploration Vehicle Envoy), which is a computer program that is similar to H.A.L. from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” albeit without the homicidal urges. S.T.E.V.E. is voiced by George Takei and is a surprise, yet welcome addition to the film. He has some first-class lines and delivers them with a deadpan attitude
that is indicative of Takei’s work. Also, it’s during this segment that we’re introduced to the perils of time travel, which is frantically shown in a minute-long sequence, which ends up transforming Reggie into various creatures and forms. It’s kind of hilarious.
After this short sequence, it’s all downhill from here. Reggie and Jake are now back in a pre-Thanksgiving world and meet the Native American-style turkeys from that time period. Needless to say, these old school turkeys have a hard time believing them about the colonists and their intent to use them in a feast. That is until a few of them are chased and captured by the nasty, mustachioed Standish (Irish actor Colm Meaney), which is when the action switches to the prototypical “rescue film.” However, I do have to applaud director/co-writer Jimmy Hayward (“Horton Hears a Who” and the live-action “Jonah Hex” adaptation) for trying to add some original elements to what would’ve been an otherwise boring, search-and-rescue story. There are some scenes that occur towards the end of the film that features more than one version of Reggie, who all happen to meet in the future and confront one another. It’s a wacky scene that kind of validates the rest of the film. Without it, the movie would’ve fell flat on its beak.
The performances are top-notch. Well, that is, except for Wilson and you know my reasons why. Harrelson is absolutely hilarious as Jake, who’s back story flashback is witty and relevant. Amy Poehler makes an appearance as the love interest Jenny, whose funniest lines have to do with a sight gag about her lazy eye and Dan Fogler plays the colonists’ leader, Governor William Bradford, and is solid as usual.
However, it’s not the performances that steal the show here. It’s the aforementioned sight
gags that end up ruling the roost. The lazy eye gag is pretty amusing, but it’s the physical altercation between Jake and the leader of the Native American turkeys, Ranger (voiced by director Hayward himself), where they fight by puffing out their chests and their bright-red wattles (which is the flap of skin, that hangs from their chin — hey, that was a nice rhyme) and slamming into one another. It’s a frantic scene that plays brilliantly and is probably the most memorable scene in the film — well, that and the time-travelling sequence.
That being said, two entertaining scenes does not a movie make, which is the case here. Again, I applaud the filmmakers for taking a chance on something different from the norm and when you’re an up-and-coming animation studio like Reel FX Creative Studios is, you have to think outside the box to compete with the big boys (ie: Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks). However, they just ended up missing the mark with “Free Birds.” Maybe they should go with a story that’s not quite as odd and complicated next time out.
And leave Owen Wilson out of it, please.