Blu-ray Review: Free Birds

These birds have a right to be angry.

By , Contributor
What if a couple of clever turkeys were able to hitch a ride on a super-secret, government-controlled time machine, travel back to Plymouth Colony in 1621, and remove themselves from the Thanksgiving menu? That's the high concept premise of Free Birds, a mildly amusing animated feature that got a bit lost in the 2013 holiday season onslaught. Though it starts off promisingly, the jumbled plot—overstuffed with sci-fi, quasi-animal rights messages, and historical revisionism—gets the better of it in the end. Still, young kids are likely to get a kick out of it, even if its depiction of Native Americans leans towards politically incorrect.

The opening act goes down easiest as we meet Reggie (voiced affably by Owen Wilson), a smart turkey stuck amidst a rafter of simpletons. His feathered friends believe the slaughterhouse is actually a gateway to "turkey paradise." Due to the affection of the First Daughter (voiced by Kaitlyn Maher), the President of the United States (voiced with Clinton-esque charm by director Jimmy Hayward) selects Reggie as the official "pardoned" turkey.

Free Birds a 1.jpgReggie really does get a ticket to a sort of turkey paradise, living in the White House as the First Daughter's pet. He revels in a steady diet of pizza and watching Telemundo. Just as it's shaping up to be a slacker variation on Lilo & Stitch, Reggie meets Jake (Woody Harrelson, phoning it in) and becomes involved in the President's time-travel project. Jake was visited by the so-called Great Turkey (which turns out to be a rather lazy time-travel paradox), who tasks him with ridding Thanksgiving dinner of fowl.

For awhile, there's plenty to chuckle at as we see the bumbling government agents attempting to pull off the most monumental feat of all time. The time machine itself is voiced by none other than George Takei. But once Reggie and Jake are plopped down in the pilgrim days, the film's anything-goes pluckiness dies out. In fact, we don't really go back to the President and his daughter, nor Reggie's original farm, leaving that opening act feeling strangely disembodied. Reggie meets Jenny (Amy Poehler), a lazy-eyed turkey who serves as his love interest.

Free Birds b 1.jpgThat's where some uncomfortable problems set it. Early on, Reggie equates turkeys with stupidity. Jenny and her fellow turkeys, like Chief Broadbeak (Keith David), are depicted as a kind of Native American tribe. While I think the filmmakers were trying to suggest that once-smart turkeys have been dumbed down due to years of being nothing more than future Thanksgiving dinners, it's a questionable metaphor. And they still manage to court stereotypes (while perpetuating myths regarding the interaction of Native Americans and the colonists).

One thing I can't imagine anyone disagreeing over: Free Birds looks gorgeous on Blu-ray. The 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer, framed at 1.85:1, is razor sharp. The appropriately autumn-tinged color palette is finely nuanced, lending a touch of realism to the foliage. The time-travel sequences offer a chance for the animators to really show off, with results that are always a pleasure to soak in.

Free Birds c 1.jpgThe DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is every bit as strong, with those sci-fi scenes making good use of the surround channels. The beating of a war drums demonstrates the robust bottom end. Dominic Lewis' score fills out the spectrum. Everything is in it's place, with a few aural surprises to keep things interesting (such as Reggie's muffled cries while he's first being abducted).

Not much in the way of extras, probably due to the rather lackluster reception the film received last November. A trio of five-minute featurettes helps us see how the animation was acted-out and scored. A live-action short depicts a post-Free Birds version of the traditional grade school Thanksgiving play. Aside from a couple trailers, that's about it. The Blu-ray combo pack includes a standard DVD and UltraViolet digital copy.

Free Birds George Takei 1.jpgAt its worst, Free Birds is a tiresome genre mash-up. At best, it's a chuckle-inducing, noisy romp that features a few cute ideas. Unfortunately, as the plot mechanics grind forward, it becomes clear that no one involved managed to inject any discernable heart into the proceedings. Still, much of it is creatively animated and a there are some inspired (if throwaway) gags sprinkled in.

Images: Relativity Media/20th Century Fox
Free Birds Owen Wilson Woody Harrelson 1.jpg

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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