Attention, children! Thanksgiving will soon be upon us, and unless the cook in your household provides a vegetarian option, that means turkey — a bird that has been raised to be axed, packaged, and raced to your grocer’s freezer, ultimately to wing its way onto your family’s table. There it will be presented on a platter, its legs splayed in a most ungainly fashion — let’s hope it’s been spared the further indignity of those ruffled paper anklets — before its flesh is torn to pieces and ingested by a gang of ravenous humans who will later fall asleep on the couch while watching football. It’s the American way. We are, after all, a nation founded on bloodshed.
Free Birds, an animated wingding from director Jimmy Hayward (Horton Hears a Who!), offers a vision of a kinder, gentler Thanksgiving. Reggie (voiced by Owen Wilson) is a young turkey with a higher-than-average IQ, which means he knows his days are numbered. He casts a somber glance around the barnyard at his fellow future oven-stuffers and despairs over their stupidity: They stare with delight at their own toes; their eyes gleam with gratitude when the farmer comes around with their daily ration of corn, the better to fatten them with. But Reggie sees a way out when the President comes through town to pardon one lucky turkey. (As voiced by Hayward, he’s a Bill Clinton sound-alike with a cheerful corndog drawl.) Reggie is lucky enough to be the chosen bird, and he’s whisked off to Camp David, where he’s introduced to the pleasures of TV and pizza delivery. He even gets his own pair of fuzzy pink bunny slippers, shuffling around the Presidential digs as if he owned the place.
No turkey ever had it so good. But fate intervenes in the form of a bigger, more ambitious turkey named Jake (Woody Harrelson), who urges the reluctant Reggie to travel back in time and alter mankind’s holiday-eating habits. Via a giant talking space egg named S.T.E.V.E. (that stands for Space Time Exploration Vehicle Envoy, and its voice belongs to George Takei), they whiz back to Plymouth circa 1621, where they try to destroy the gunpowder stash of Myles Standish (Colm Meaney) to keep turkeykind safe from his muskets. Their plan goes awry, and they’re saved by a plucky girl-turkey named Jenny (Amy Poehler). She serves as Reggie’s love interest, though she’s also destined for great things within her own turkey tribe. Because these days, it’s not enough for cartoon characters to just be cute; they need to be aspirational and inspirational as well.
Free Birds is so unhinged that it could almost work. It doesn’t, at least not after Reggie leaves the comfort of Camp David (and those fuzzy pink slippers) behind. Like so many modern animated features, Free Birds packs too much in; the picture feels cramped and cluttered, and, despite its occasionally manic action, it moves as slowly as a fattened bird waddling toward its doom.
And there’s another question: Just how charismatic can an animated bird be, Foghorn Leghorn and Tweety and Daffy notwithstanding? Peter Lord and Nick Park pulled off a small miracle with their 2000 Chicken Run, a retelling of The Great Escape using chickens: With their googly eyes and buck teeth, their bodies shaped like ginger jars, those capon crusaders had style to burn. The result was cockalorum pandemonium.
Free Birds‘ Reggie looks anemic in comparison: He has Fozzie Bear’s haunches and a blue head perched on a slender, rubbery neck. His expression is eager-to-please, vaguely imbecilic — he has none of the gung-ho determination of those Chicken Run gals. Jake is older, more robust, with a big, macho brown torso, but his personality is just as indistinct. It doesn’t help that Hayward jams a sort-of robot army and dozens of nondescript 17th-century turkeys into his story.
Reggie and Jake do change history, persuading human beings — in this case, early settlers and Native Americans alike — that there’s something tastier than turkey flesh. It’s a lovely idea — all those turkeys’ lives spared! But it’s doubtful Reggie’s 1621 triumph will change what shows up on most Americans’ Thanksgiving tables this year. Then as today, bird is the word.