On paper, "Free Birds" has an oddball premise. Living on a cutthroat farm where survival among his gang of fellow turkeys is less than certain, Reggie (voiced by Owen Wilson) has never felt like he truly fit in. When the President of the United States (Jimmy Hayward) arrives to pardon a single fowl for Thanksgiving, his demanding little daughter (Kaitlyn Maher) picks Reggie, promptly sweeping him onto Air Force One and back to their retreat at Camp David. Reggie thinks he's got it made, at least for the time being, but there is no guarantee he'll always be safe, or that the girl won't lose interest (she already has the attention span of a gnat and the sleeping patterns of a narcoleptic). When Jake (Woody Harrelson), he of the Turkey Freedom Front, approaches Reggie, he reveals that the only way to stop the slaughter of turkeys during the November holiday is to change the course of history. Equipped with a time machine called S.T.E.V.E. (George Takei), the two of them travel back to 1621, three days prior to the very first Thanksgiving in the Plymouth Colony. Their daunting mission: to rally with the unsuspecting 17th-century turkeys and steal the weapons that Captain Myles Standish (Colm Meaney) and the rest of his settlers are planning to use to catch their dinner.
"Free Birds" was directed by Jimmy Hayward (2008's "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who
"), who co-wrote the screenplay with producer Scott Mosier (best known for his producing credits on Kevin Smith's "View Askewniverse" films). Not surprisingly coming from these guys, this computer-animated jaunt is mighty irreverent, a tonal cousin to the "Shrek
" series in the way it appeals to grown-ups privy to all the slyly acerbic jokes going over the younger audience members' heads. Within the opening ten minutes, there is a President clearly modeled after Bill Clinton and the suggestion that he's having an affair with his intern. This will completely be lost upon single-digit viewers, though one does have to wonder why a political scandal from 1998 is getting referenced in a 2013 family movie.
Outdated or not, the one-liners in the picture come quickly enough that it is not a deal-breaker when they do not work as well as intended. The story is an imaginative one and its time-travel plot carves out its own respective place in the subgenre while harkening back to, particularly, 1988's "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" and the circuitous trip through time and literal outer space. Eventually joining Reggie in his fight while, simultaneously, shining him on about his claims that he's from the futureshe believes there is a good chance he might be crazyis the self-reliant Jenny (Amy Poehler), her eyes going wonky whenever she's under stress. Owen Wilson (2011's "Cars 2
") is amiable to a fault voicing central makeshift hero Reggie, while Amy Poehler (2011's "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked
") epitomizes spunky quirkiness as love interest Jenny. They make for a cute couple, as far as turkeys go. Less memorable is Captain Standish, a Hook-like villain with half the personality and not very much to do. His comeuppance is an afterthought.
"Free Birds" is poppy and entertaining, but its agenda isn't exactly subtle. Kids who see "Free Birds" and fall in love with the characters will likely be adamant against eating them the next time Thanksgiving rolls around, while Reggie and Jake's attempts to take away the humans' weapons is an indisputable anti-gun statement. Not a bad message, necessarily, but on the nose for sure. Meanwhile, echoes of 1994's "The Lion King" aren't accidental when a parental figure tells his child, "I'll always be with you," before passing away. Perhaps the film suddenly sounds like some kind of self-serious, propaganda-fueled drama. It really isn't, but it does have a valiant heart to go along with its silly comedic flavor. In Reggie's opening voiceover, he describes the meaning of Thanksgiving as sitting down to a family meal. "That's what it's all about," he says. At the end, he's changed his tune. "It's about togetherness," he realizes. "A time to share, to be thankful." Reggie is thankful, all right, and not only because the main dish is no longer within his species.