Should a cartoon have an agenda? Put another way, should a kid’s film, aimed at a demographic far removed from an understanding of subjects like political correctness, animal rights, and revisionist history, be subjected to the stupidity that is Free Birds? Unlike most contemporary family fare which throws vocal stunt casting and ridiculous non-sequitur pop culture references at its demographically predetermined audience, this movie decides that its message is more important than mirth. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find those material-mandated easy laughs in this lame excuse for holiday-themed hilarity.
Reggie (voiced by Owen Wilson) and the rest of his fowl flock are earmarked for end of November victuals. While his pals could care less, he’s in a bird brained-blind panic. When the President of the United States comes along and pardons him, our feathered hero ends up living the good life at Camp David, complete with pizza delivery and a TV tuned in to tacky telenovelas. Just as Reg is getting settled in, along comes Jake (Woody Harrelson), the leader of the TLF — Turkey Liberation Front — who wants this privileged piece of poultry to join him on a dangerous mission.
The plan? Inspired by a vision when he was a young chick, Jake wants to travel back in time to the first Thanksgiving and persuade the pilgrims to remove his particular type of pullet from the soon to be traditional holiday menu. Once they access the government’s secret time machine (voiced by George Takei) and end up back in 1621, they must take on one Miles Standish (Colm Meaney) while dealing with the native birds, their leader (Keith David), and an attractive hen named Jenny (Amy Poehler).
When you consider the numerous unexplained and unrealized irons that Free Birds has inserted into its particularly implausible cinematic fire, it’s easy to understand why the results fail to ignite. Instead of doing one thing and doing it well, ala the Great Escape-homage Chicken Run, this is yet another simplistic CG cartoon that wants to be everything to everyone and ends up being very little for the only group that matters (i.e., the wee ones). Kids will be bored silly by this random bit of historical happenstance while their parents might balk at the depiction of everyone’s favorite holiday white meat as victims in a possible genocide. Indeed, the 17th century turkeys are depicted in decidedly Native American terms, inferring that their fate matches those of the people who were “displaced” once the White Man showed up and took over. Right.
Even the animation lacks the necessary pizzazz. Compared to something like Despicable Me or even Disney’s delightful Wreck-It Ralph, the basic bulbous shapes and bland expressions look like sketches, not completed concepts. It’s reminiscent of that surprise sleeper hit Hoodwinked in the low-end computer rendering department. For his part, director Jimmy Hayward proves why his live action take on Jonah Hex was so horrible. He can’t seem to keep a single storyline straight, imposes mood swings on the material like a teenage girl in love, and, in the end, shows little comedic timing or flare. His cast doesn’t help. Only George Takei has fun with his Trek-like takedown. Everyone else is just going through the well-paid motions.
But it’s the message, in the end, which undermines anything that Free Birds hopes to achieve. Decades ago, Warner Brothers would have its feathered cartoon characters battle it out with their hungry human foes for piles of slapstick-induced smiles. Here, thanks to a desire to play PETA, activism trumps anarchy, resulting in one DOA duck… or turkey.