Tuesday, November 19, 2013

I'm Free as a Bird Now

With Thanksgiving rapidly approaching, what better than an animated kid's movie to put you off of your turkey day festivities? No, really, I'm serious.

Free Birds follows smarter-than-average Reggie (Owen Wilson), the latest turkey to be pardoned by the President of the United States, as he lounges away his stress-free days at Camp David. Soon, he meets and is kidnapped by fellow turkey (and intellectual counterpart) Jake (Woody Harrelson), a freedom fighter who recruits Reggie for a mission of the utmost importance, given to him by none lesser than the "Great Turkey". Using the government's super-secret time machine (naturally located near the President's vacation spot), the duo travel back in time to rally the turkeys of 1621 and to forever remove their species from the Thanksgiving feast menu.

Free Birds is the first animated feature film to be released by Reel FX Creative Studios, yet another in the growing list of companies hoping one day to be on the same level as Pixar or Dreamworks Animation. Just looking at the condition of their first feature, there's no doubt that there's a long way to go for there being any chance to reach that plateau, but there's still a lot to like here, especially when there's not a whole lot in theaters right now that looks to challenge it for family viewing.
Indicative of the "faceless government" we all know and love...
Under the direction of Jimmy Hayward (wisely returning to animation after the disastrous live-action Jonah Hex), Free Birds shows off intentionally cartoonish animation that is leagues better than some of what I've seen this year, especially when you consider how many movies from experienced filmmakers have come out in 2013. When you compare the sheer quality of the animation to Epic and Despicable Me 2, there's not much contest. Hayward and his team put in a solid effort on the character animation AND the design of the universe they inhabit, and the results are simply gorgeous.
...and unfortunately, that doesn't translate to still shots.
The film also boasts a very talented cast, led by Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson and Amy Poehler. Wilson's somewhat cartoonish voice naturally lends itself to animated fare, and if he wasn't so in demand for live-action gigs, I could easily see him easily transitioning into voice-only work for easy money. Despite frequent hiccups like The Internship, I remain convinced that Wilson is actually an underrated actor (watch Midnight in Paris for the best example), and when he actually helps out a production, it's worth noting. Considering Harrelson's vegan, pro-animals lifestyle, it's easy to understand why he got on board with this production. It helps that he's the film's greatest asset, combining the bravado of an American action star with the comedic timing of... well, Woody Harrelson. Poehler doesn't carry the same kind of weight with her performance as her co-leads, but she still does a decent enough job as a native Turkey fighting for survival before the first Thanksgiving. The cast is rounded out by genre standards, from a ruthless hunter (Colm Meaney) to an honorable Turkey Chief (leave it to Keith David to make me cry), though the film is stolen at many moments by Star Trek's George Takei as the voice of S.T.E.V.E., the time machine's charismatic artificial intelligence. Hayward also provides voices for several characters, and does a good enough job that it's surprising he hasn't done this kind of work before. The cast overall puts in a solid effort, and Free Birds is all their better for their dedicated involvement.
Reggie enjoys the simple things in life.
Sadly, we're reminded that this IS a film designed for small children, and even the most youth-minded of adults will become alert to this fact in quick succession. From the simplistic plot to the annoying sidekick who are just there to appeal to younger viewers, there's little here to appeal to people of older persuasions, and while there's a tender soul hidden within the story, Hayward doesn't do quite good enough job of letting it loose as the birds whose freedom he's advocating. Free Birds starts with the myth that turkeys are naturally dumb (which anyone who actually has spent time with the birds will tell you is an utterly false pretense), then never fully makes up for its missteps by the the film's end. Instead, a by-the-book story of uprising and justice is littered with jokes (some good, some cringe-worthy bad) and material that will be out of date in ten years' time (punctuated by an obligatory "Angry Birds" reference and the appearance of "Turducken"). Free Birds also doesn't recognize one of its best bits, as an early favorite for kids (and one heavily featured in the trailer) are the yellow-HAZMAT-suited government agents, who completely disappear after our heroes go back through time. By not revisiting them at all after the first act, it's clear that the filmmakers either lost sight of or never realized the true draw of their motion picture. In a year where Dreamworks makes cavemen more than a five minute joke and Pixar actually makes a CLEAN college film, it's a shame that second and third-rate animation studios do not take the lessons they SHOULD be learning from the big two, and only try to match them in terms of technology.
As per the norm, it's the lady that rules the roost.
For the record, Free Birds is a pretty good movie. No, it certainly doesn't appear that great when compared to the best and greatest of today's animated fare, but for a first-time effort from a fledgling studio, it could have been much, MUCH worse than the genuinely fun flick we get. It doesn't have much to offer the non-family audiences, however, so if you're flying solo or taking somebody more mature to the movies you'd do better to buy tickets for just about any other title out there. At least until Disney's Frozen hits theaters in two weeks, this is the best flick to take your young children, and while spending extra to see this in 3D wouldn't really be worth it (par for the course), it's still one you can take your kids to enjoy without worries that they won't get the message. And while the delivery is doubtlessly flawed, Free Birds' message is one just smart enough to which you might just choose to listen.


Richard J. Marcej said...

I had a free movie pass (I see so many films at the Regal chain I earn free passes from time to time) and saw this last week. I thought the premise was a clever one and gave it a shot. You’re right, it’s not horrible and because they aimed it more for a family crowd I think they left out a lot of obvious jokes/funny bits. Because of the family fare I thought for sure (spoiler alert) that Reggie, since he had a time machine after all, would return before the pilgrim attack and Turkey Chief’s death.

I was the only person in the audience for a 6:55 PM Thursday show and the biggest laughs I got was from Takei. I also was surprised that the HAZMAT guys weren’t in it more. Because of the trailers I thought they’d be “Free Birds” Minions.

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