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Review: Free Birds (2013)

Free Birds (2013)

Directed by: Jimmy Hayward

Premise: An animated film in which two turkeys (voices of Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson) use a time machine to travel back to the first Thanksgiving in an effort to keep birds off the menu.

What Works: Free Birds improves significantly in its second half. Where the first half of the movie is aimless and is often padded with gags that aren’t very funny, the second half is much more focused and delivers a mostly coherent story with something at stake. A widespread problem in contemporary family movies is the refusal to put the characters or the audience through anything even remotely challenging; were Bambi made today it is almost inconceivable that the mother would be killed. Free Birds is distinguished by actually taking a risk, slight as it may be, in the sequence in which hunters lay siege to the turkey nest. This set piece gets pretty intense for a kids picture and the filmmakers put something at stake in the story. This level of drama isn’t sustained through the rest of the picture but it is just enough to end the film with some satisfying closure.

What Doesn’t: Free Birds comes across like a short film that has been expanded into a feature length picture and the efforts to stretch it that far are increasingly strained. The film begins by introducing an intelligent turkey who realizes he is being groomed for slaughter. His life is spared when he is chosen for the White House’s annual turkey pardoning ceremony. This portion of the film has a dark sense of humor to it and it mixes cartoonish physical humor with more mature jokes. But then Free Birds becomes a time travel story, as the intelligent bird is paired with a gung-ho but daft wild turkey who intends to hijack a government time machine and go back to the first Thanksgiving in order to keep turkeys out of the traditional holiday dinner. If this sounds bizarre that’s because it is, but the movie does not play up its own strangeness and the time travel plot does not mesh with the first part of the picture. Once the characters have transported themselves to the time of the Pilgrims, Free Birds switches its tone again as the pair of time traveling turkeys try to spare a flock of birds from the human hunters of a nearby village. This portion of the movie plays like a Dances With Wolves imitation; the local birds are clearly intended to be a stand in for Native Americans as they wear face paint and other stereotypically native garb and are organized as a tribe. The racial metaphor here is both obvious and absurd; Free Birds implicitly suggests that the holiday slaughter of turkeys is somehow akin to acts of genocide against native peoples. Even for animal lovers this ought to be a bizarre analogy and instead of making the movie smart or subversive, Free Birds is frequently stupid and boring. Aside from the journey to the past, nothing really happens in the first half of the picture. Many plot points and key visuals imitate or simply rip off other movies such as A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, and the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes. Innovative plots are often missing from animated fare, even in the output of Pixar and DreamWorks, but in other animated pictures the clichés are often overcome with interesting characters, fun jokes, and impressive visuals. The characters of Free Birds are not interesting, the humor isn’t funny, and the animation of this film is frequently terrible. Free Birds often looks like a Saturday morning cartoon blown up for a theater screen. And that may be the biggest problem with this film: it is unclear what movie the filmmakers were trying to create. There is a difference between family films and children’s pictures but Free Birds erratically jags between those categories. The resulting movie is probably too complex for children and certainly too simple and too stupid for their parents.

Bottom Line: Although Free Birds arcs upwards in quality over the course of the picture, it is just too mediocre to recommend. The movie has none of the heart or character that viewers look for in a holiday movie and it is unlikely to entertain anyone.

Episode: #467 (November 24, 2013)