With the voices of Woody Harrelson, Owen Wilson, Amy Poehler, George Takei, Colm Meaney. Written by Scott Mosier and Ken Jimmy Hayward. Directed by Jimmy Hayward. Rated PG for some action/peril and rude humor. 91 minutes.
Ignore the vulgar and pointless posters for FREE BIRDS and ignore the enticement to spend extra money to see it in 3D. “Free Birds” turns out to be an entertaining animated offering that is not only themed to Thanksgiving, but will especially appeal to vegans and vegetarians. Kids will appreciate the slapstick, leaving it to parents to reinforce or ignore the subtler message.
We first meet Reggie (voice of Owen Wilson) on a turkey farm where he is a bit of a misfit. He tries to warn the other turkeys that they’re just being fattened up to be the main course at Thanksgiving, but they don’t want to hear it. Fate intervenes––in an amusing and twisted way––when the President of the United States shows up to officially “pardon” Reggie, allowing him to escape the slaughter.
At this point you may be wondering where the story is going and that’s when we meet another turkey named Jake (Woody Harrelson) who is on a mission from the “Great Turkey.” He is to get Reggie and then the two of them are to infiltrate a top-secret project involving a time machine. The plan is for the two turkeys to return to the 17th century and prevent the pilgrims and the local Indians from celebrating the first Thanksgiving with turkey.
The time machine, run by a computer program named S.T.E.V.E. (George Takei), takes them back and they meet up with the local wild turkeys. Reggie falls in love with Jenny (Amy Poehler), whose father is the Turkey Chief (Keith David). Meanwhile, the Pilgrims are starving and their team of hunters, headed up by a thuggish Miles Standish (Colm Meaney), are doing what they can to provide turkey dinners for the settlers.
It turns out to be a charming movie in which Jake tries to prove he’s more macho than Jenny’s brother while Reggie is torn between finding a way back to his cushy life as a “pardoned” turkey and staying in the past with Jenny. Don’t tell the kids, but it’s probably important for the parents to know that after a couple of mildly scary sequences where first the pilgrims and then the turkeys are under siege, that the film wants us to side with the talking turkeys. The humans in the film may not understand them but we do, and that makes all the difference.
So, parents, if you’ve got a meat-free home you’ll find “Free Birds” positively refreshing as it criticizes factory farming––with the turkeys crammed into tiny cages––and wonders why Thanksgiving can’t be celebrated with pizza. On the other hand, if you’ve already got the bird in your freezer ready to go, you may want to be prepared to explain to the little ones why it’s okay to eat meat when the turkeys in the movie seem so funny.
Of course, you can try logic and try explaining to them that turkeys can’t really talk. And then you can explain to them why the movie claims it is only loosely based on reality… except for the part about the turkeys talking. “Free Birds” is a clever and entertaining film, but if your four-year-old is going to throw a fit when “Reggie” is served at your family dinner, you may want to think twice.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.