In one of the best bits on his breakthrough album Werewolves & Lollipops, Patton Oswalt describes the punch-up process on computer-animated films as thinking up “funny jokes that people offscreen can yell over the unfunny, uninteresting action to make it a comedy.” That succinctly sums up the experience of watching Free Birds. The best moments are jokes that feel grafted onto a film that was probably close to completion before anyone involved realized they were portraying a fight between turkeys and English settlers as the largest conflict in the European colonization of North America.
Reggie (Owen Wilson), the only turkey on his farm to realize that his brethren are bred for the Thanksgiving dinner table, becomes the ceremonial bird pardoned by the president of the United States. He lives a charmed life—accompanying the president’s exposition-spouting daughter, kicking back and enjoying telenovela marathons—until Jake (Woody Harrelson), an escaped factory-raised turkey, kidnaps Reggie to find a secret government time machine. Jake’s plan: go back to the first Thanksgiving and “get turkeys off the menu.” Once in colonial times, the two birds team up with the underground—tribal wild turkeys, led by Jenny (Amy Poehler), yet another love interest for Wilson to stammer at.
The film operates under a “don’t ask questions” mentality with respect to time-travel paradoxes, talking animals, and American history. No humans can understand the turkey gobble language, but Secret Service agents don’t bat an eye when one struts down the hall in slippers to pick up a pizza. Jake’s plan would eliminate the economic impetus for turkey farming, throwing their own existence into question. And the gaggle of wild turkeys has among its members a wholly unnecessary Latino stereotype.
When they get lines worth selling, Poehler and Harrelson earn their paychecks as the leader-in-waiting and lunkheaded brute, respectively. And George Takei has some trifling fun as the voice of the time machine. But Free Birds doesn’t just obliterate any semblance of historical sensitivity in its effort to stake a claim on rarely attempted holiday films. (See also: 2011’s Easter-themed Hop.) It equates turkeys—birds repeatedly referred to as dumb and incapable of fighting for their own lives—to Native Americans. In doing so, the film marginalizes the role that culture played in bringing turkeys into the colonial ecosystem, while ignoring that the natives were also hunting and killing the birds, and thus were not exactly allies in the struggle against the colonists.
Director Jimmy Hayward started his career on the computer-animated television series ReBoot, and worked as an animator on the first five Pixar features. Outside of the nurturing confines of that studio, however, Hayward’s directorial efforts—Horton Hears A Who! and Jonah Hex—have been increasingly troubling. Helming a film that reframes the colonial Thanksgiving myth with egregious product placement (for Chuck E. Cheese’s notoriously terrible pizza, no less) shows mocking contempt for an audience assumed to be as lazy as the unquestioning farm turkeys.