When it comes to dumb, talking cartoon animals, it’s kind of a surprise there aren’t more animated turkeys. Birds that don’t fly and have weird things hanging off their faces? That’s hilarious. And turkeys are dumb. Real dumb. Reel FX’s Free Birds, written by Jimmy Hayward and Scott Mosier and directed by Hayward, manages to not only take full advantage of this ridiculous creature we pay an absurd amount of attention to every November, but it also make turkeys three dimensional characters in their own right.
The premise of Free Birds feels like a no-brainer that should’ve been thought of before. Turkeys don’t want to get eaten, so they declare war on Thanksgiving. This movie goes one step further by having two polar opposite turkeys travel back in time to 1621 to stop the very first Thanksgiving. So silly birds plus buddy comedy plus sci-fi time travel story? That makes for a fun ride.
The two lead turkeys, Reggie and Jake, are about as opposite as you can get. Reggie, voiced by Owen Wilson, is the over-thinker whose intelligence makes him an outcast from his farm flock, and Jake, played by Woody Harrelson, is a lab turkey with lots of strength and little brain. It’s a good dynamic that plays out well, and the additional turkeys they meet in the past including Jenny (the love interest played by Amy Poehler) and Chief Broadbeak (the strong leader voiced by Keith David) really help fill out the cast. Oddly enough, the time machine itself may be the most memorable character. S.T.E.V.E., voiced by George Takei, is snarky and a little bit playful, and while he helps Reggie and Jake, he’s used sparingly enough that every minute of him on screen is gold. The heart of the story really hinges on all these turkeys, their various backgrounds, and how they all end up working together. The human settlers serve as the film’s antagonist, and the serious hunter Myles Standish (Colm Meaney) and the worried Governor Bradford (Dan Fogler) make a threatening and even comedic pair. It’s a pretty dang strong group of characters, and it’s a pretty dang strong cast. Certain characters obviously end up with more screentime than others, and while all the main ones are sufficiently developed, there are a couple interesting side characters, whose names I can’t even recall, that have distinctive looks and amusing personalities that I wished we could have seen more of.
Speaking of strong visuals, credit goes to the entire Art Department for the designs of the turkeys. Dumb turkeys, smart turkeys, skinny turkeys, buff turkeys, old turkeys, cute baby turkeys, and turkeys with visual quirks. A lot went into the looks of these birds, and physical appearance goes well with characterization.
The humor and plot work alongside each other rather than get in each other’s way. It’s easy to create a movie with silly looking gag characters and have them do something stupid and entertaining for 90 minutes. The characters in Free Birds have amusing traits that are secondary to who they are as characters. Jenny, for instance, has a weird eye problem, and it’s funny whenever it shows up, but it doesn’t stand in the way of her arc. Which makes it even more funny when it shows up again. And, naturally, the ending doesn’t become a long gag but a question of what’s going to happen to these characters. It ends up being quite satisfying that way.
Not that I was looking to complain about anything, but if I had one, it would probably be the complaint you can give to any time travel story. When a character has a time machine, they can go back and fix any mistake they made. This movie doesn’t give any restrictions on time traveling itself. There are no warnings against paradoxes, and there are certainly no rules about preserving the timeline if the goal is to change history. So while the character’s problems could be overcome a lot easier with a more practical use of the time machine, the movie would be less interesting and a lot shorter. All in all, the movie wanted to have fun, and it certainly wasn’t trying to make a deep philosophical point about the use of time travel. Historical accuracy itself goes out the window. There’s a disclaimer at the very beginning that says as much, and sets the tone of the entire movie.
Okay, one more nitpick. The choice of the song used over the end credits is kind of baffling. Social Distortion does a cover of “Up Around The Bend” (originally by Creedence Clearwater Revival). It’s not a bad choice, it’s fun and upbeat, but I was expecting, well, “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Maybe there was a rights issue or something, but it just kind of threw me.
Free Birds is a strong movie, and while it can be enjoyed on its own, there’s no getting around the fact that it uses an American holiday as a springboard. International audiences can certainly enjoy it, but they may not care as much about Thanksgiving as the domestic audience. Despite that, I can see the movie making a big splash in theaters. Interpersonal issues and humor are universal, after all, and Free Birds can be enjoyed without understanding or caring about the historical context. The question is whether or not it’s going to have a long shelf life. Every holiday movie wants to be a holiday classic, as the overly-saturated Christmas movies that battle it out for air time every December can attest. There aren’t nearly as many Thanksgiving themed movies, let alone ones with talking time traveling turkeys, and with all Free Birds has going for it, it’s got a decent shot at being a replayed and rewatched every Thanksgiving.