There aren’t many Thanksgiving-themed family movies out there to choose from, but be aware that if you take your kids to see “Free Birds,” the new 3D flick from Reel FX Animation, you should expect them to demand pizza for their holiday dinner instead of turkey—and cheese pizza at that. Though the picture is decent from a production standpoint and has some action and a few laughs, it’s liable to transmit some pretty bizarre messages to the youngsters, and it will come as no surprise that Chuck E. Cheese’s is a promo partner on it. The degree of product placement is frankly hard to swallow.
Owen Wilson voices Reggie, a scrawny turkey who can’t make his barnmates believe that they’re being fattened up for Thanksgiving dinner. Fortunately for him—if not them—he’s chosen by the president’s little daughter to be the bird pardoned by her daddy. That takes him to the high life at Camp David, where he soon becomes addicted to pizza deliveries and melodramatic telenovelas.
But his life of Riley doesn’t last long, because a wild-eyed turkey named Jake (Woody Harrelson) shows up and kidnaps Reggie at the behest of an apparition calling itself the Great Turkey. Their mission: to commandeer a time machine called Steve (voiced by George Takei) being tested by the US military and go back to Plymouth Colony in 1621 to remove turkey from the menu for the first Thanksgiving—and all those to follow.
That will be difficult, though, since the nasty Captain Myles Standish (Colm Meaney, whose surname is apt in this case) is out hunting turkeys for the big feast. The local flock, an Indian-turkey blend led by Chief Broadbeak (Keith David) and his macho son Ranger (Jimmy Hayward), is desperately trying to avoid Standish, and when Reggie and Jack blunder into the forest, their situation becomes even more precarious. Goofy Jake and intense Ranger cross wings almost immediately, while lovesick Reggie spends so much time courting Broadbeak’s daughter Jenny (Amy Poehler) that he loses sight of their goal in hope of getting back home and taking her with him.
Lots of chases, escapes and fights—including a strange one that turns into an impromptu dance between Jake and Ranger—follow, and the solution to everything comes in the form of the dim-bulb Chuck E. Cheese’s delivery guy (Scott Mosier) whom Reggie ultimately transports through time to deliver pizzas to Plymouth, which both pilgrims and their Indian guests so love that they give no further thought to turkeys. (Note well the absence of toppings on the pizzas, except for accidental anchovies.) The moral seems to be that pizza is the perfect food not just for Thanksgiving but for every meal, a notion that Chuck E. Cheese might embrace but might cause some consternation among nutritionists concerned with childhood obesity.
The animation in “Free Birds” is adequate—not Pixar standard, to be sure, but not appreciably worse than the stuff made by Blue Sky—and the voice talent is fine, with Wilson doing his usual sad, sleepy sack routine and Harrelson easily putting across Jake’s boobish persona. Poehler and the rest fill the bill more than competently, too, with Takei seeming to have an especially good time as the voice of the time-traveling machine. But Hayward and Mosier provide only a few good jokes for them to deliver, and the incidental characters are mostly a bland lot, except for Standish, who comes across like the sort of lip-smacking villain Christopher Lee might have played—hardly a person Longfellow would have recognized. (That’s only one of the oddities in the depiction of the Plymouth pilgrims, who are hardly the heroic pioneers tradition generally portrays, led as they are by a portly gourmand identified with Governor Bradford.) Probably the best single sequence occurs early on, when Reggie and Jake, in order to take control of Steve, have to avoid a troop of hazmat-suited guards also voiced by Hayward. The nattering soldiers are fairly amusing fellows, and the picture could have used more of them—in the fashion of the Minis of “Despicable Me.”
“Free Birds” was originally titled “Turkeys,” and given the connotation the word usually carries, it’s no surprise that somebody nixed the moniker. It’s not all that bad, but in story terms it’s a pretty foul fowl, and as far as these computer-driven animated kidflicks go, it’s utterly mediocre. It probably won’t be long before it goes the way of the dodo.