What a weird little movie this is. Not quite creative enough to be an act of warped genius, too corporate to seize the mantle of real imagination, Free Birds nonetheless makes its mark with a outside curve ball that states definitively "you ain't gonna see this one coming." Cartoon turkeys we understand. Cartoon turkeys out to stop the annual Thanksgiving apocalypse from decimating their kind… yeah, that follows. But cartoon turkeys who aim to do that by traveling back in time to stop the first Thanksgiving ? Using a secret time machine hidden under Camp David? A time machine voiced by George Fucking Takei?! Pass whatever the filmmakers are smoking, because I want me some of that!
In too many ways, Free Birds is just another babysitter movie: amusing enough for the kids and moving along just quickly enough to keep the adults from gnawing their own arms off. Its buddy-comedy believe-in-yourself message comes straight from the Give It a Rest bin; its animation is well-rendered but not hugely remarkable. Of all the family movies you've seen in the past few years, this is one of them: neither good enough to merit any excessive praise nor dismal enough to pass by when one needs a few precious hours of undemanding family-friendliness.
And yet somehow, it the middle of that it takes enough funky right turns to justify itself. Said turns only lead to more clichés, true, but the exact pattern of clichés betrays something more at work: some addled bit of originality that strikes a few blows for the freaks out there.
So ahem, yes. Turkeys. Mucking with the time-space continuum. You have to admit, you don't see that every day. And it's enough to hold our attention if nothing else. They're pretty goofy birds after all, a fact that Free Birds cheerfully reminds of us in an endless line of man-fall-down slapstick that never wears out its welcome. Turkey #1 is Reggie (voiced by Owen Wilson), a genius among his kind… making him just smart enough to realize what Thanksgiving means for them. Rescued by a once-in-a-lifetime miracle -- the annual presidential pardon -- he settles into a comfy life in the care of the terminally flaky First Daughter. Enter Turkey #2, Jake (voiced by Woody Harrelson), singled out by destiny to save his people from the chopping block by virtue of a time machine in the Camp David basement. He claims "the Great Turkey" gave him this mission, granting him the scary eyes of a true believer and sending Reggie's hard-earned Shangri-la straight to the far end of a wormhole. Soon enough, they're in 1621 Massachusetts, dodging musket balls and savage dogs in an effort to stop the holiday from ever happening.
As you may suspect, there's a lot of unanswered questions in the concept. This is one of those movies where pulling on a few strings will unravel the whole carpet, so don't go poking at those plot holes. Luckily, the intended audience probably won't mind, and to its credit, Free Birds doesn't abuse the privilege too egregiously. It finds an offbeat goofball tone to pull it along: just different enough to stand out from the pack without the kind of boldness that marks the very best animated features. Wilson and Harrelson are too good at this kind of silliness to screw it up, helped out by the likes of Amy Poehler (as Reggie's turkey love interest) and Colm Meaney (as a very scary Miles Standish). Meaney is one of three Star Trek alum in this cast, a strange little tidbit that might feel out of place if the overall tone weren't completely suited to such observations.
Director Jimmy Hayward is smart enough not to push too hard, going for easy bullseyes and avoiding the tougher shots that his film clearly isn't up for. Free Birds won't make the Pixar folks too worried, but with an open playing field this November, it should do well for itself and I'd be lying if I said it didn't deserve at least a little of the attention. It's reliable, inoffensive and even kind of fun, especially when it finds new ways for its concepts to ricochet off of each other.
Free Birds is exactly the kind of project that could be spoiled by too much success, and one cringes at the thought of half a dozen sequels slowly leeching whatever goodwill this first effort manages to secure. But we're not there yet, and for now, it's more than enough to leave it be. After all, it's probably the best chrononautical turkey buddy movie you'll ever see… and that in and of itself is worth noticing.