Free Birds: It’s been two months, I’m still unsure

Freebirds1Spoilers Follow

ON THE DAY I went to see Free Birds, I was wandering through a nearby twenty four hour shop. There were free fortune cookies. I decided to treat myself to one, when I opened it, it read ‘success will not come to those who do not strive for it’. Free Birds never strives for success, heck, it never even really attempts relevancy; it’s a thanksgiving movie released in the UK in March. Part of me wonders why it even bothered to release here beyond something to burn off over Half Term to ‘entertain children’. It is for this reason I consider that it doesn’t matter that this review is late as the film was quite irrelevant to begin with. I want to establish, I went into this movie trying not to be one of those people who go along to an animated film to mock it, I wanted to like it after all it has Parks and Recreation’s Amy Poehler, Woody Harrelson, Keith David and Owen Wilson in its voice cast. Any other film and that would be a good four actors to build it around. Also George Takei voices a time machine called S.T.E.V.E but more of that later. I watched a film, this is as much as I can confirm. To this day, I’m only tangentially sure any of it actually happened.

On the day I went to see Free Birds, I temporarily lost my keys, the friend who was going to accompany me fell very ill and then it began howling a gale, pouring hail and heavy rain. I began to wonder if this was a sign for me to turn back. Yet I went in undeterred. For anyone who doesn’t know, the simple version of the timeline of Free Birds is that every year the President pardons a Thanksgiving turkey, Owen Wilson voices that turkey, and he has the best life a turkey could have with double beds in Fort William/ With poorly animated Spanish tele-novellas and an unlimited supply of (the notoriously awful) Chuck-E-Cheese pizza. This is until he is uprooted from his comfort by Woody Harrelson – who seems to be voicing a combination of Rambo and Lennie from Of Mice and Men but a turkey. He’s an escapee from a battery farm who is led by divine intervention. Woody Harrelson drags Owen Wilson to a time machine that throws them into the past so that they can stop Thanksgiving from ever happening to save the lives of turkeys everywhere. Clearly unaware that this isn’t the only time of year turkey is eaten. They meet along the way the head of the turkey warrior tribe – Keith David, who lends his role an undeserving level of gravitas even when he sounds half asleep – and his daughter and Owen Wilson’s love interest, Amy Poehler, who has been given a hilarious eye that occasionally turns lazy when the screen demands a ‘joke’.

On the day I went to see Free Birds, I prepared myself by watching Primer on Netflix because I wanted to at least experience logical time travel. It becomes clear that Woody Harrelson’s turkey who wields the ‘great time knob’ (it’s a door knob, remove your head from the gutter) has been sent back in time by the almighty time turkey, or something with a similarly silly title. At the moment of defeat in the second act, Owen Wilson retreats back to the present only to be tackled by three or four future versions of himself that come back to convince him not to abandon the turkeys in their fight against evil hunter Colm Meaney, despite the fact they couldn’t consecutively exist within the timeline of when Owen Wilson had the time machine, they then go back to an early point in Woody Harrelson’s timeline and become the time turkey in order to convince him to take him to the future thereby cyclically creating his own present in the past and meaning that the events of the film rely on the middle of the film happening in order for any of it to exist meaning his present, future and past have to be existing simultaneously in order for any of this to make sense. It doesn’t. This is then followed by a final showdown where everything is resolved and all live happily ever after (more on that later) and Woody Harrelson takes the time machine and goes freedom fighting thereby nullifying a point in time in which Owen Wilson would have the machine in order to go back to convince himself to create the beginning events. Basically it exists in a time vacuum whereby no logic or sense can get in or out. I know it’s a lot to expect expert time travel in a movie for kids but frankly, they could have at least made it make sense.

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On the day I went to see Free Birds, I didn’t laugh. Or at least not during the film. Or at least not on purpose. The film seems to struggle on the basic element of adding in humour. I’m surprised they stopped short of an animated dance party for the cast. George Takei as S.T.E.V.E is possibly the most on form cast member playing well on his sci-fi cultdom. Yes, he does say ‘oh my’ in that it’s probably in his contract that he gets to say it in everything. The dialogue itself is heavily forgettable. Beyond the aforementioned ‘oh my’ bomb, I have no memory of any other lines from the film. It is the kind of film that decides to set up two repeated sight gags based on a lazy eye and a child who randomly falls asleep at a moment’s notice and decides to repeat them ad nauseum. I want to reiterate, I understand I am not the target audience for this but even they were bored. I counted five laughs in about ninety minutes. Seven if we include the trailer for Mr Peabody and Sherman. Amy Poehler and Woody Harrelson add some gusto to their delivery attempting to make lame punchlines land but it’s all for naught as they are nowhere served by the script. The best kid’s films offer something for kids and adults alike, this one offers nothing for either.

On the day I went to see Free Birds, I saw something less than beautiful. The animation itself is perplexing. They seem to have created some occasionally sleek, often efficient set design especially for the time travel sequences but the character models neither look nor move in a very real way. The film looks like someone who attempted to create something equivalent to Chicken Run but forgot to include any sense of character or personality. The Chicken Run comparisons are apt as this is basically the most American version of that film possible. Yet the film lacks everything that made Chicken Run great, the characters are undefined, the romance is uninvolving, the villains aren’t frightening, the jokes seem forced and the animation actually looks a lot jerkier despite being computer generated instead of stop motion. Jimmy Hayward the director made a decent film in Horton Hears a Who but this actually seems far closer to his more recent failure Jonah Hex but at least that had Josh Brolin wrestling ghosts and Irish actor Michael Fassbender with an unconvincing Irish accent

Freebirds2On the day I went to see Free Birds, I gave up on caring. The movie’s subtext is incredibly broken. To begin with, Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson basically play the honourable adventurers saving the noble savages in that the turkeys of the past seem to be played for every Native American stereotype they can get away with but the most offensive thing about the film is the way they save them. Have you ever seen a film in which a war between the Native Americans, the turkeys and the British is halted by a turkey descending on high to bring everyone pizza? Have you ever thought ‘that’s the obvious resolution; world-wide vegetarianism could be caused by everyone eating Margherita pizzas’? No, you haven’t because you aren’t the objectionably unsubtle publicity department of Chuck-E-Cheese, You have never decided to present the overwhelming fist on capitalism crushing the traditional pastime of America in such a blunt form. Are we meant to believe that the hideous conditions of the battery farm earlier in the film are resolved? That the entirety of the industry is dismantled and all turkeys are free to frolick and be merry? There is the hint of a good moral in the insinuation that Thanksgiving is an important holiday because it reminds you who you are thankful but at the same time, why should I care? I’ve never celebrated Thanksgiving and this film doesn’t make me change my mind. Even if I did, I wouldn’t eat turkey but I can’t imagine a person who does changing their mind as a result of this film. The film is the equivalent of the bad pizza: cloying, claggy, flat and leaving you with a bad taste in your mouth and a weird feeling in your gut.

On the day I went to see Free Birds, I didn’t want to perform a hatchet job. I don’t think even with the worst films I see that I actively want to dislike them. I tried to like this, I really did. The premise seemed insane enough that there was the smallest chance that it could have been good. But it wasn’t. I can’t say it’s the worst film I’ve ever seen but then I went in without any real hopes that could be dashed, I mean let’s face it, no-one expected this to be a positive review. For all its good or bad, I haven’t had as much to think about from a kid’s film for quite a while. Admittedly few of the thoughts have been positive but the film is quite interesting in its flaws. There’s far more wrong with it than right but honestly, I can recommend seeing it. It’s not a film that will change anything, it will barely even hold your attention for the entire running time but the way it works (or doesn’t) is utterly fascinating. It could have worked if the kids like it but even they seemed bored. A film needs an audience far more than they need it. That’s what I found the day I went to see Free Birds.