Every year about this time, millions of turkeys are fattened up so American households can chow them down. But in “Free Birds,” two brave turkeys make it their mission to travel back in time and get their breed off the Thanksgiving menu.
In this amusing but occasionally distasteful animated feature from visual effects studio Reel FX, turkeys Reggie (Owen Wilson) and Jake (Woody Harrelson) strive for heroism and bank some notably kooky buddy comedy along the way.
We’re introduced to Reggie, a rather astute turkey living on a farm with his lackadaisical flock. With Thanksgiving on the way, he attempts to warn the other birds, with whom he desperately wants to fit in, that they’ll soon be dinner if they don’t wise up. As a result, his flock deems him the “anti-corn.”
However, they soon discover Reggie is right, then toss him out of the coop to be slaughtered. To his luck, he is scooped up by a peppy little redhead who convinces her father, the president of the United States (who sounds a lot like a Bill Clinton), that Reggie will be the year’s “pardoned turkey.”
Off in a helicopter to Camp David, Reggie begins to settle into his new life filled with channel surfing and pizza when he’s abruptly snatched by a fellow turkey, the buff and buoyant Jake. Jake believes it’s their destiny to find a time machine for a trip back to the first Thanksgiving to ensure turkeys don’t become the main dish.
Their dynamic is instantly amusing: Jake lacks the brains, but is equipped with the brawn, while the quick-witted Reggie approaches things logically. Still, Jake manages to coax Reggie into a large, egg-shaped time machine. But before they travel back through time, Jake leads Reggie in a victory dance and the two lock feathers. The groove is a bit homoerotic, which prompts Reggie to crassly brand Jake “weird.”
Once in the time machine, appropriately voiced by “Star Wars” vet George Takei, they’re off to Plymouth Colony, November 1621, where they are welcomed by gun-toting colonists looking to feast.
The two escape just in time, saved by Jenny (Amy Poehler), a pretty young female turkey and the sassy daughter of the head of the local flock. The groundwork is thus laid for Reggie and Jenny’s love story, with Jenny set up as a strong female character for the little ladies in the audience.
After presenting their best arguments to rile up the local flock and change the course of history, Reggie and Jake successfully destroy the colonists’ weapons. During the battle that follows, we are taken on another journey through time, which results in a big cheer-raising climax.
The first feature film from Reel FX, “Free Birds” lacks the dazzling visuals of DreamWorks, Pixar or Walt Disney animated films, and the use of 3-D may have given the budget a boost but not the experience. Yet the turkeys in “Free Birds,” with their immense eyes (especially those of the cuddly baby birds), varying body types and distinct mannerisms are impressive.
Co-written and directed by Jimmy Hayward, whose credits include “Horton Hears a Who!” and “Jonah Hex,” “Free Birds” is a solid premiere effort that shows Reel FX’s potential to produce quality full-length animation. But the story-line, with its hypothetical constituents, seems a little desperate at times, even for a kiddie film.
Yet children will get a kick out of the slap-stick humor — the jubilant fast-talking daughter of the president is priceless — and adults should appreciate nods to films about time-travel from the 1980s, like “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and “Back to the Future.”
In the end, we are offered a junk food alternative to turkey that will leave most kids satisfied. But it’s the film’s central motifs that should stick to the ribs: Always believe in yourself and never give up. Oh, and girls rock!