Because anything is possible within the world of animation, it’s always especially disappointing when storytellers fail to go the extra mile and really capture a creative spark. This is the sad story behind Jimmy Hayward’s Free Birds, a movie with an inventive premise and a great cast that is ultimately unable to live up to its promise.
Owen Wilson stars in the film as Reggie, an outcast turkey burdened with the knowledge that every November in America he and his kind are transformed into the main course for Thanksgiving. While his fears are temporarily abated when he is miraculously selected as the “pardoned turkey” by the President of the United States and moved to the swanky Camp David, his relaxing life is upended when Jake (Woody Harrelson), a boorish, less intelligent turkey, kidnaps him and takes him on a mission to travel back in time to the first Thanksgiving and take turkey off the menu forever.
The premise of time-traveling turkeys suggests some really inventive storytelling ready to go down, but the whole story winds up playing out exactly how you expect. Reggie and Jake's time-travel adventure back to the 17th century is the same hero’s journey that we’ve seen literally thousands of times before. Reggie tries to impress a girl, inadvertently creates a disastrous situation for the turkey tribe that took him and Jake in, and then learns a lesson that allows him to come back to save the day. As you watch all of these pieces fall into place your mind can’t help but skip ahead and predict the obvious ending – sucking all of the entertainment value out of the film. Perhaps it’s a case of not living up to expectations, but if that’s the case then audiences should drop all of theirs.
For everything about the script for Free Birds that doesn't work, it does have some solid gags and jokes, mostly playing on Jake’s lack of intelligence. The animation is an equally mixed bag (mostly due to a lack of variation in turkey character design), but when the movie is really trying it’s able to come up with great things like S.T.E.V.E., the bizarre-yet-awesome egg shaped time travel machine voiced by George Takei that operates unlike any time machine we’ve ever seen on screen before. It’s in these parts of the film that you can really see what the movie could have been. ￼
Hayward did well finding legitimately talented voice actors, but once again drops the ball when it comes to execution. Rather than having Wilson, Harrelson, or Amy Poehler (who plays the female lead/ Reggie ‘s romantic interest) do something different in the recording booth, the three main characters all just sound exactly like the actors playing them. The actors have perfectly good timing and delivery, but the recognizable voices take you out of the movie, putting the focus on the performer instead of the performance.
There is nothing obscene, destructive, or harmful about Free Birds - it’s just not a very good movie. Take the kids, enjoy what you can about it, and leave knowing that it won’t take long for the memory of the movie to be deleted by short attention spans.