I don’t know what prescription the makers of Free Birds were on, but whatever it is, I hope it’s made over-the-counter in my lifetime. This is the absolute damnedest of any 3D animated film I’ve seen since … well, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve never seen a 3D animated film like this. Its utterly cockamamie plot involves, among other things, two turkeys that locate the President’s secret time-travel device and go back to the year 1621 in an effort to stop the first Thanksgiving from taking place. I cannot in good conscience recommend this film – certainly not for the younger audiences it’s being marketed towards, for they won’t have the first clue how to process its sense of humor. At the same time, I’d be lying if I said that I was bored by it. I just stared at it in helpless fascination, wondering what direction it would go in next.
The two turkeys couldn’t be anything less alike. One is Reggie (voiced by Owen Wilson), a puny outcast who understands all too well that his kind is raised to become the main course on Thanksgiving Day. By a stroke of sheer luck, he’s the turkey selected for the annual presidential pardon and is immediately flown by helicopter to Camp David, where he quickly gets used to the luxury of ordering pizzas and watching telenovelas. But then, one night, he’s kidnapped by the other main turkey character. This would be Jake (voiced by Woody Harrelson), who’s not only a brawny and pea-brained alpha male but also a messianic figure, called upon by the Great Turkey to travel back in time and prevent all turkeys from becoming an edible holiday centerpiece. A flashback sequence shows the Great Turkey appearing to Jake as a silhouette against a beam of blinding white light, after which he gives Jake the holy Golden Doorknob.
After Jake recruits Reggie into the Turkey Freedom Front – which, up until that point, consisted only of Jake – the two somehow stumble upon a massive underground complex and wind up in a chamber with an egg-shaped time machine that creates a rip in the space-time continuum. This egg, called S.T.E.V.E. (voiced by George Takei), transports them back to the Plymouth colony, where starving pilgrims rely on a psychopathic, Ahab-esque commander named Myles Standish (voiced by Colm Meaney) to hunt down every single turkey for an upcoming harvest feast with the Native Americans. As Reggie and Jake try to evade Standish, they happen upon a flock of wild turkeys, who live in the roots of a gigantic tree on a cliff. The daughter of the chief, Jenny (voiced by Amy Poehler), immediately becomes Reggie’s love interest. This is despite her lazy eye, which she has to pop back into place by holding her beak shut and blowing real hard.
Now, I could point out that Jenny’s dialogue (along with much of the pilgrims’) is alarmingly anachronistic, that the film is narratively all over the map, that there had been days of thanksgiving for years prior to the one at Plymouth, that turkey was but one of many meats served at that point in time, and that today’s pardoned turkeys live out the rest of their lives at petting zoos or on farms rather than at Camp David, but really, what’s the use? Apart from the fact that the film candidly opens with a disclaimer that it’s a work of fiction and not intended to be historically accurate (with the notable exception of the talking turkeys, which the filmmakers assure us are real), I can pretty much guarantee you that no potential audience is going to care one iota about such things.
But that raises the question of who makes up the potential audience. It cannot possibly be children. I wholeheartedly agree that children are generally smarter than many adults give them credit for, but let’s be realistic, here; unless we’re talking about genius-level youngsters who show passion and proficiency in the sciences and who earn advanced college degrees at very early ages, they shouldn’t be expected to comprehend the theoretical possibilities of time travel. Nor are they likely to respond favorably to heavy-handed images of turkeys being fattened up in cramped industrial cages before being dragged off to be beheaded, drained of their blood, plucked of their feathers, packaged in plastic bags, frozen, and sold in grocery stores for mass consumption.
Then again, it cannot possibly be adults, who typically prefer their goofy humor laced with sex, profanity, and drug references. So who was this movie made for? A large part of its appeal, for want of a much better word, is the fact that it tells a story so inexplicably extraterrestrial. In other words, it’s not that it exists for anyone in particular, but simply that it exists, period. I’m not recommending Free Birds. But at the same time, I can’t urge you to not see it, because in all likelihood, you won’t see anything like it again for quite some time. For a story rendered in bright colors on God knows how many computers, it’s an experience so strange that it transcends all notions of common sense and rational thought. I have no idea what to make of this movie. If you see it and think you might have an idea, please let me know. Your insight might come in handy for me the next time something like it comes along.