It’s that time of year again, when holiday movies descend upon us. The Halloween specials are winding down and the buzz for Christmas film releases are garnering more attention, but Hollywood always seems to forget about Thanksgiving. “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” and “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” notwithstanding, the pickings are pretty slim.
Hoping to finally give Thanksgiving its cinematic due, director Jimmy Hayward serves up “Free Birds,” a tale of two turkeys who abandon the norms of a family-friendly film and embark upon an unexpectedly serious adventure.
Thanksgiving has never been better for Reggie (Owen Wilson). He’s just been named the Presidential Pardoned Turkey, which means free pizza and TiVo for the rest of his life. But his the lap of luxury is short-lived when a delusional turkey named Jake (Woody Harrelson) kidnaps him and tells him of his secret mission: to travel back in time to stop the first Thanksgiving and save every turkey who has been murdered for the annual meal.
From there, the plot turns strangely intense and dark for a target audience of five- to eleven-year-olds. The two turkeys—along with their ancestors from the 1600s—plan to bombard a human settlement that is inexplicably defenseless. Myles Standish (Colm Meaney) and his team of scavengers care only about the ruthless hunting of turkeys, not finding some other, less complicated means to feed their starving neighbors. The conflict doesn’t fit the genre of the film, and it can’t even generate sympathy with the turkeys. The time machine also brings inconsistencies, as it left Reggie and Jake’s travels with several plot holes.
The distinct lack of humor also adds to the seriousness of the plot, with more dramatic dialogues than witty one-liners. In its first act, the film holds the potential of a feel-good family comedy, but unfortunately almost all of its humor comes from the President’s daughter (Kaitlyn Maher), who chooses Reggie as the Pardoned Turkey, makes hilariously frank comments about her daddy’s staff, and promptly leaves the film after 10 minutes.
Almost every other character, though was markedly less loveable. Jake makes an odd sidekick for Reggie with his talk of a mysterious “Great Turkey” who gave him his mission to save his kind. He also develops a strange rivalry with native turkey Leatherbeak (Hayward), in which they inexplicably act like anime sumo-wrestlers – complete with “dubbed” dialogue. The romance between Reggie and Leatherbeak’s sister Jenny (Amy Poehler) may be the sweetest part of the film, but all sentimentality is lost in the fierce human-turkey confrontations.
While “Free Birds” has good intentions to provide a fun family film for Thanksgiving, it is ultimately too serious with its plot, leaving the audience confused – we’re rooting for lunch meat over our own species, for crying out loud – and rather disturbed. Some advice for this Thanksgiving: spend it with Charlie Brown instead of this turkey of a film.
** out of five