Friday, November 8, 2013

The Cinema File #271: "Free Birds" Review

I try not to read other critic reviews for movies before I plan to see them, to avoid unconscious plagiarism, but I feel in the case of the new animated film Free Birds, I must make a point that I can only assume has been made in every other review of this movie. The pilgrims never ate turkeys at the first Thanksgiving. They ate deer. The whole turkey thing is a myth to justify a modern tradition of turkey eating. From what I understand through the most cursory of online research, the first time turkey was on the Thanksgiving menu was sometime in the mid- 1800's, shortly before it was declared a national holiday in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln. Ordinarily I might suggest that the reason for maintaining the myth in a movie about time traveling turkeys would be to make the resulting adventure more relatable to a mass audience, but really, how awesome would a movie about turkeys fighting Lincoln have been?

Free Birds is the story of Reggie and Jake, two turkeys who board a secret government time machine to travel back in time to the first Thanksgiving to stop the historical genocide of their people before it starts. Now, as always, I'm an easy mark for animation, and had a movie like this come out in 2012 amid so many above average examples of the medium like Wreck It Ralph, Rise of the Guardians, and The Dark Knight Returns, I would have placed this somewhere near the bottom tier for the year. Fortunately it came out this year, where there's been really only one truly great animated film, and the next best one was a sequel to a movie predicated on food puns. Free Birds is probably somewhere in the middle of those, nowhere near the top of the list, but probably a little more entertaining than the next best thing on it.

Doing a little research about the movie after the fact, I find that one of my favorite cartoonists, Ren and Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi apparently did some early development work on Free Birds. Its unclear from the final product what if anything was preserved from his early sketches, but even if the end result is cleaner and more subdued than anything in the Kricfalusi canon, there's definitely a manic sense of fun to the movement of the characters and the mad cap craziness in their eyes that seems to deliberately hearken back to an old school looney tunes style, in stark contrast to most animated films from the big two CG movie houses. Everything from Free Bird's unapologetically absurd premise to its sometimes uncomfortable approach to humor feels like a rebuke of the Disney and Dreamworks formula, which is appreciated in the wake of so many lackluster attempts to follow that mold to the letter over the past few years.

Free Birds definitely feels like a valiant effort to try something a little different while at the same time producing a film still in keeping with what kids expect in their animated movies today, tweaking the model without breaking it. Co-writer Scott Mosier, frequently a collaborator with writer/director Kevin Smith, brings a slightly darker absurdest edge to the storytelling, bookending the movie with two disturbingly funny images, the first of which is literally an anthropomorphized turkey screaming in horror as he watches a family eat a Thanksgiving turkey through the window. I won't spoil the last joke, as its probably one of the funniest in the movie, but suffice it to say it is a reference to something that's already pretty gross even before you give the animals involved sentience and personality.

The critical consensus appears to be rather sour on this movie, and I mostly understand the reaction. Most of the twists and silly bits of ingenuity are admittedly on the margins, and the primary structure of the movie is fairly routine and predictable for kid's fair. Its easily in line with the Save The Cat style of dramatic escalation, even if all the stuff they were able to cram in on the side is a cut above most film's meeting that standard. Also, the look of the film outside of the clever cartoon throwback with the turkeys is pretty substandard, with most of the humans and environments looking like they were made with technology at least a few years out of date. The main villain in particular looked like a character from one of those bargain basement foreign knock-offs, which almost made him more unsettling than he was meant to be as I found myself mired in the uncanny valley every time he came on screen.

Still, I can't find it in myself to hate Free Birds. There's just too much about it that's charming and goofy and right in my wheelhouse. George Takai voices the freaking time machine for goodness sake (not to mention we also get the sultry voice of one Keith motherfucking David himself). How can you say no to that? Overall, its really nothing special, certainly nothing that would ever make it onto a best list without a lot of caveats or unique circumstances. But there are enough hidden gems scattered throughout that make it worth while, and there's nothing so egregious that I would think would merit the kind of negative reviews its gotten. I mean, the "turkeys are dumb" jokes might get a little old, but not nearly as fast as those damn Minions did. If even one thing in the trailer made you laugh, even stupidly, than chances are there's enough in Free Birds to entertain you.

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