D: Jimmy Hayward / 91m
Cast: Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Amy Poehler, George Takei, Colm Meaney, Keith David, Dan Fogler, Jimmy Hayward
With an opening sequence reminiscent of Chicken Run (2000), Free Birds has scrawny, unliked turkey Reggie (Wilson) trying to convince his fellow meals-in-waiting that being picked for “turkey paradise” isn’t as great as it sounds. When the US President arrives at their farm to choose that year’s Pardoned Turkey it’s Reggie’s luck to be chosen. After adapting to a lifestyle spent watching TV and ordering in pizza, Reggie ends up being coerced into helping fellow turkey Jake (Harrelson) who is determined to travel back in time to the first Thanksgiving and ensure that turkeys are taken off the menu forever. Using a time machine called S.T.E.V.E. (Takei) that is hidden underground at Camp David, Reggie and Jake travel back to 1621 to the Plymouth plantation and meet up with the local turkey colony led by Chief Broadbeak (David). With the planned Thanksgiving feast only days away, and the turkeys being hunted by cruel Myles Standish (Meaney), it’s up to Reggie and Jake to convince Chief Broadbeak and his daughter Jenny (Poehler) to take the fight to the settlers.
While it’s high concept storyline and Back to the Future-style plotting offers nothing new, Free Birds tries its best to entertain, throwing in a few clever jokes and keeping it light. It’s not too demanding, and for children below the age of ten it should be diverting enough but there’s a lack of charm that seriously hurts the movie’s chances of broadening its audience. The storyline is weak and underdeveloped, and there’s too much reliance on Reggie’s verbal schtick to pad out the uncomfortable dialogue. With many of the ideas and speculations from Robert Zemeckis’ trilogy trotted out like badly tuned homages, Free Birds also proves derivative rather than referential, leaving the underused Takei to save the day as the time machine.
The characters are painted with broad brushstrokes, leaving the cast with too much work to do to make the audience connect with anyone. Wilson plays Reggie like a nerd with a persecution complex, rarely deviating from the standard vocal patter he uses in live action movies. Harrelson is saddled with a bigger problem playing the loveable lunkhead Jake, a character so one-dimensional it’s amazing the actor manages to add some light and shade to his performance. Takei aside, the rest of the cast make next to no impression at all, and the roles could have been played by anyone without any significant improvement or change. With the script proving so undercooked, it’s often a relief to see that some ideas – the Hazmats, the President’s narcoleptic daughter – have managed to find their way in to alleviate matters.
Visually, Free Birds looks colourful and richly detailed but the movie lacks that zing that computer animation can bring to the big screen. The time travel sequences look like they were filched from an Eighties animated movie, and the backgrounds don’t always look convincing. That said, there are some stand-out sequences, the attack on the turkey’s hideout being one of them, but on the whole the movie isn’t visually strong enough to grab the attention; there’s not enough going on in the frame to fully occupy the viewer.
Hayward orchestrates the various elements with a lack of flair that keeps the movie treading water for most of its running time, and while he has a strong background in animation – he directed the much better Horton Hears a Who! (2008), as well as working on several Pixar movies – it’s a shame he’s let the material (co-written with Scott Mosier), and what appears to be a limited budget, get the better of him.
Rating: 5/10 – not the complete bust it sounds like but definitely one for a younger audience; a chore for adults then but leavened, thankfully, by some quirky humour.