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By Patrick Kirkland · October 30, 2013
"Two turkeys go back in time to the first Thanksgiving and try to take themselves off the menu." That's the log line for Free Birds according to Producer David Stern. As original as the idea sounds, the final film not only leans heavily on its influences, it basically replays them.
Written by Scott Mosier (Clerks) and Jimmy Hayward (Horton Hears a Who!), story by David Stern (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) and John Strauss (Santa Clause 2), and directed by Hayward, Free Birds tells the tale of Reggie (voiced by Owen Wilson), a turkey who doesn't fit into his flock, and Jake (voiced by Woody Harrelson), a factory-farmed turkey that doesn't have a flock.
It's a Fish Out of Water/ Time Travel story that begins in Reggie's coop (think The Ugly Duckling), but when Reggie is picked for the annual Thanksgiving "Presidential Pardon", he's taken to Camp David to live the life of luxury — which means he stays in bed, orders Chuck E. Cheese, and binge watches "El Solo Lobo," a Spanish soap that mirrors Reggie's story.
Oddly, this FOOW tale is interrupted by another FOOW story when Jake kidnaps him to steal a government-issued time machine named S.T.E.V.E (voiced by George Takei). Together, they travel to Plymouth Rock, 1621, where they team up with early turkeys (and Reggie's love interest, Jenny, voiced by Amy Poehler) to stop the original settlers from eating one of their ancestors at the first Thanksgiving meal.
Sound complicated? It is, though not confusing, partially because of the film's rigid structure. It seems to follow Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet almost to a T, but because of that, the film suffers from a long first act for all of this setup. And while the animation is entertaining, it takes forever to get to the heart of the story. The break into Act 2 happens about 30 minutes in when Reggie and Jake reach Plymouth; the midpoint is clear when Reggie gets on board with Jake's plan; and the break into Act 3 comes right after Reggie's "Dark Night of the Soul" moment, when he tries to figure out what his purpose is. There's even a clear Blake Snyder moment when Jenny overtly states the theme of Free Birds to Reggie at the beginning of the "Fun and Games" in Act 2.
My issues with Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet aside (hey, they got a film made, I didn't), it's that rigidity that takes away any surprise in the film, and the only sense of adventure comes from S.T.E.V.E the time machine, which steals the show every time it's on screen. Try as Owen Wilson might, he just can't compete with George Takei's wit and line delivery. Not to mention, the main characters just aren't funny.
The script is riddled with sight gags and one liners delivered by minor characters. A minor Security Guard will deliver one line, and a Squirrel will give another. And you know when you're supposed to laugh, because the line will feel like it needs be capped with a rim shot. That's not to say that the jokes aren't funny, because some of them truly are, they're just stuck in between jokes we've heard before. (Yes, there is an Angry Birds gag. And yes, it's funny when it happens.)
I felt like I had heard and seen it all before, and the truth is, I had. But that repetition is also why the film was entertaining to watch as an adult, and a screenwriter. The opening title card is lifted almost directly from (500) Days of Summer. I constantly felt the influence of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Back to the Future, and the 3rd Act features its own Independence Day/ Braveheart speech. Not to mention, there are a massive number of Pixar references in the film, which is no surprise, with Jimmy Hayward being a Pixar vet. Picking out the influences of the film was almost more entertaining as the film itself. The drawback here, however, is that when I laughed, the kids- that is, the target audience- did not.
Free Birds is definitely a kid's movie. When it arrives on Netflix, it will be a fantastic addition for those parents who turn on Finding Nemo and Cinderella to gain a free minute to take a shower. But it's also enjoyable enough for those parents who grew up on Doc Brown and Marty McFly, and those animation lovers who still cry at the end of Nemo– though, it's almost a guarantee that you won't shed tears here. And while the idea is original enough, Free Birds didn't make me really care about the characters, or their goal. And frankly, this Thanksgiving, I'll still have a juicy turkey ready to carve on my kitchen table.