You've got to feel bad for Thanksgiving. It's sandwiched between two much more popular holidays, and about to be overtaken by Christmas sales that many would just assume start up the day after Halloween. Its signature sport is dealing with a concussion crisis, and now we've got "Free Birds," an animated children's film that wants to replace the centerpiece of the holiday itself.
Anyone holding out hope that "Free Birds" is a documentary on the legendary southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd should cancel their reservations. Rather, "Free Birds" is a CGI epic about time-traveling turkeys that leaves you feeling like you've just watched a 90-minute PETA commercial.
The story opens with a turkey named Reggie (voiced by Owen Wilson), who lives on a free range farm with a few dozen other flightless peers. He's your classic misfit, which is obligatory in a movie like this, and the only turkey in the bunch who suspects that his destiny amounts to something less than the American Dream. But when he tries to warn the others that all the corn they are eating is just fattening them up for the chopping block, they blow him off. And when The Man finally comes, he's the first one offered up for sacrifice.
Only in this case, "The Man" is actually the president of the United States, and instead of becoming dinner, Reggie receives the annual presidential pardon reserved for one special turkey. Reggie is whisked off to Camp David, where he becomes a live-in pet for the president's attention-span deficient daughter and learns the wonders of delivery pizza.
At this point, it seems that "Free Birds" will settle in to tell the story of a "Free Bird" and his new life as a pardoned turkey. But shortly after his pardon, Reggie is stolen away in the middle of the night by a turkey named Jake (Woody Harrelson), who escaped from a much different turkey farm where birds spend their lives in tightly-packed, unsanitary cages. Jake is determined to hijack a top-secret government time machine to go back in time and fix history. Fix what, you ask? The decision to eat turkey at the first Thanksgiving.
On the surface, it's a cute premise, and chances are most parents will simply turn off their brains and catch the standard double-entendre humor that animated films include to appease older viewers. And "Free Birds" is a funny film. The time machine is a giant floating egg voiced by George "Mr. Sulu" Takei, and Owen Wilson fans will recognize his usual wide-eyed enthusiasm. But anyone who pays closer attention will want to ask questions, like: Why are all the pilgrims so angry? And, why do the wild turkeys use war paint?
"Free Birds" is not the first children's film that set sout to educate its audience, but its agenda is a little transparent. It doesn't take much of a stretch to find references from animal cruelty to American imperialism floating between the pixels of its CGI.
Reaction to this animated feature may mostly depend on where you fall on a variety of political spectrums. But even if its message proves to be polarizing, audiences should be able to agree on one thing: The 3-D in "Free Birds" is useless. If you do see this film, save yourself the extra money.
"Free Birds" is rated PG for some scary moments and cartoon violence.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on the "KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English Composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.
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