Director: Jimmy Hayward
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Owen Wilson, Amy Poehler, Colm Meaney
Running time: 91 min
Release: 29th November
Thanksgiving is meaningless. Europe has seen colonialism’s true face and we know that it is dirty and ugly. Our friends in the U.S. can’t let go of the old fantasy, though. The myth of the American soldier as global liberator, for example, depends on it. Sorry, guys. At least once a year, your food is seriously off – ideologically off. And the curious thing about Free Birds is that the film seems to recognise this. The turkeys even look like Native Americans. The banal and obvious thing is the solution the film comes up with – a superlative instance of product placement.
The basic premise of Free Birds is this: once a year, the president ‘pardons’ a turkey, and that animal is plucked from the Thanksgiving killing floor. The pardoned turkey this time around is our hero, Reggie (Owen Wilson), who then goes to live with the president’s daughter in the White House. Then Reggie gets corralled by dumb-but-big-hearted freedom-fighting turkey Jake (Woody Harrelson) into travelling back in time to stop the first Thanksgiving from ever taking place and thus saving generations of turkeys. And all of that happens in about the time it took you to read about it.
Toy Story came out around this time 18 years ago. It’s a rare CGI film that gets the balance right the way Toy Story did. Computer animations, when they’re done properly, are like big, noisy mobiles – brightly coloured and weighty-looking cones and cuboids promising but never quite delivering their satisfying tactility. This is so long as the film allows us to luxuriate in a setpiece – Andy’s room and Nemo’s tank come to mind – and, of course, a good story helps us take it all in. But Free Birds’ model is the toy commercial, and, like that pernicious medium, it tries to take advantage of the child’s underdeveloped facilities of patience and self-control. The film itself is maniacally impatient, without continuities of place or theme or even character, in the hope that kids will buy into the chaos and adults will be too bewildered to resist. Imagine trying to read a comic book stuck to the side of a passing Intercity.
Jake and Reggie are no Woody and Buzz. The former is the usual sardonic smart alec with no personality outside of the wises he weakly cracks; Jake, in spite of an energetic vocal performance by Harrelson, merely served to remind me of that time Paul Simon dressed up like a turkey for SNL. No-one enjoyed that. Soon things collapse into nonsense via some feeble plot points cribbed from Bill and Ted. All is only tugged back into order at the last moment and by a certain invisible hand.
To sum up: Free Birds is one of those situations where it feels like everyone should get a refund regardless of whether or not they’ve actually gone to see the thing. You could make a nice meal for your family for less than the price of admission. Maybe do that. It’s Thanksgiving week, after all.