Funny 'Free Birds' gobbles up Thanksgiving history
05:00 AM, Oct 30, 2013
Apparently, these birds you can change.
Unlike the Lynyrd Skynyrd song, Free Birds (**½ out four; rated PG; opens Friday nationwide) is all about revisionism at least from the point of view of a pair of animated turkeys.
What they’re looking to alter is Thanksgiving, or more specifically the traditional role of the turkey in the holiday celebration.
Like the song, these birds must be traveling on. Their journey involves going back in time, to just before the legendary first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Mass. The goal is to switch up the feast so that turkey is not on the menu.
The 3-D animated film, the first of the holiday entries, is likable and amusing, if slight.
Reggie is a scrawny gobbler affably voiced by Owen Wilson. He spends his days on a farm surrounded by his own kind, though they’re dimmer and less snarky. When selected for slaughter they think they’re going to “turkey paradise.”
Reggie has been trying to tell them that Thanksgiving means carnage, but no one listens. Just as they begin to get the picture, Reggie gets whisked away by the president of the United States in his annual ceremonial turkey pardoning. Actually, it’s the enthusiastic young first daughter (Kaitlyn Maher) who selects Reggie and drags him onto Air Force One.
Soon, the bird is living in luxury at Camp David, where he develops a taste for pizza and telenovelas.
While this may sound forced, it’s actually fairly inventive and funny.
Shortly after Reggie settles into his cushy life, he’s spirited away by a determined and remarkably buff turkey named Jake (Woody Harrelson). Jake proclaims that the Great Turkey urged him to board a time machine, go back to 17th-century Plymouth Colony and stop early settlers from serving up turkey as an expression of gratitude. Somehow, his prophecy included Reggie.
Conjuring up The Great Turkey is no doubt meant to draw a connection between this and Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin. Or else it’s not a very imaginative moniker.
Initially resistant, Reggie eventually joins forces with Jake. His zeal for the mission is spurred on by his attraction to Jenny (Amy Poehler), a friendly female turkey who lives in a gaggle of birds whose lives are threatened by zealous, turkey-hunting Myles Standish (Colm Meaney). This real-life historical figure is rather inexplicably woven into this tall tale of turkey triumph.
According to this telling, colonial turkeys were no empty-headed flappers. Reggie is drawn to these wiser, more resourceful precursors who possess a sense of community and focus on young hatchlings.
Director Jimmy Hayward is on double duty, pulling off a few amusing voices, including the president (who sounds astoundingly like Bill Clinton). George Takei gives humorous voice to S.T.E.V.E, the time machine.
Some jokes are aimed intentionally over the heads of kids. And the story is overlong and has an unnecessarily violent climax.
The historical mash-up could confuse young viewers. Its message could turn impressionable children into traumatized vegans or at least inspire them to pass on the big bird and head straight for pie.
But Free Birds is pleasant enough holiday fare. And kudos to the animators for transforming a rather unattractive or at least unappreciated species into a cast of endearing characters.