Free Birds, the first feature from Relativity Media and Reel FX, is a veritable holiday fun fest - for people whose idea of a good time is listening to Owen Wilson scream.
Like so many other recent animation heroes, Reggie (voice by Wilson) is a misfit. He’s socially maladroit and a bit of a klutz, but a good-hearted guy who sees what others can’t: in this case, that the turkey farm where he lives isn’t a paradise run for the turkeys' pleasure. But no one will believe him, even though he never shuts up about it.
Just as it looks like Reggie's going to get the axe with his flock-mates, the President of the United States arrives and declares him the "Pardoned Turkey." The president’s jabbering little daughter whisks Reggie off to an idyll of pizza and telenovellas at Camp David.
The good times end with the arrival of Jake (Woody Harrelson), who’s on a mission from "The Great Turkey" to change Thanksgiving and get birds off the menu. With Reggie as an unwilling partner, Jake sneaks into a secret government lab and steals a time machine module (George Takei) that transports them to Massachusetts in 1621.
As they plot to change history, Jake and Reggie meet up with tribe of wild turkeys led by Chief Broadbeak (Keith David). These birds have built an underground city to escape the depredations of the Pilgrim hunters, especially Myles Standish (Colm Meaney). Reggie immediately falls for the Chief’s daughter Jenny (Amy Poehler).
It will surprise no one who's seen an American animated film in recent years that Reggie’s intial plan backfires, leading to the capture of much of the flock. But after an improbable series of contretemps, Reggie rescues them, redeeming himself and winning Jenny's heart. It requires such an overwrought scenario that four versions of the character from different times appear one scene—which even Reggie (and the writers) admit is stretching the bounds of credibility.
Reggie zigzags from era to era, and delivers take-out pizza for the first Thanksgiving dinner. He’s content to remain with Jenny and her flock in the 17th century, but Jake leaves in the time machine, setting up a sequel, should the film sell enough tickets and/or merchandise.
It might seem unfair to describe a studio’s first feature as amateurish, but Free Birds is loaded with cliches, poor decisions, elements borrowed from other films and regrettable lapses in taste.
Reggie is essentially Flint Lockwood from the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs films in a coat of feathers—or the hero from almost any other recent US animated film. Is the motor-mouthed misfit coming from behind to save the day the only story American animators can tell? Jenny is obviously modeled on Dory in Finding Nemo, but Poehler lacks DeGeneris' effortless charm, and the Reel Effects crew can't match Pixar's vivid animation. The turkey poults look like the characters in Ralph Eggelston's Oscar-winning short For the Birds, but with smaller beaks.
The special effects in the time travel sequence go on much too long and are far too elaborate for such a slight comedy. Making Myles Standish look like the Bad Guy in a cheesy 50’s Western (although a match dangles form his lower lip instead of a cigarette) is just odd.
The telenovella Reggie watches joins the obnoxious Mexican villain in Despicable Me 2 in the 2013 gallery of outdated stereotypes. Turning the wild turkeys into ersatz Native Americans with face paint and feather headdresses comes across as even more tasteless. If Disney or Pixar or DreamWorks trotted out this kind of stale ethnic imagery, there’d be protests.
If someone suggests taking the kids to Free Birds after Thankgiving dinner, stay home and do dishes instead. It’s more fun.