FREE BIRDS: The Pardoned Turkey

Free Birds Poster

Free Birds (2013) – Directed by Jimmy Hayward – Starring Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Amy Poehler, Dan Fogler, George Takei, Colm Meaney, Keith David, and Dwight Howard.

Man, there are times when I’m watching a movie and am hit straight in the face with the fact that I’m kind of an asshole.

FREE BIRDS is one of those times. I don’t have a lot to say about this movie because I watched the parts of it I didn’t sleep through with a near constant state of cringing. It’s not that FREE BIRDS is horrible as much as I wish it didn’t exist in this form.

Reggie (Owen Wilson) is a well-meaning turkey who’s trying to convince his fellow turkeys that the farmer is not their friend, that the farmer is just feeding them all corn to fatten them up before killing them. Reggie is a perfectly fine and well-meaning character and his earnestness is in good vocal chords with Owen Wilson bringing him to life, but the problem with Reggie is that he’s the only one who understands what’s really happening because he’s the only turkey who doesn’t come off as a complete and utter moron. Not, like, the rest of them fail to grasp America’s obsession with meat-based holiday food, but like, they walk around sounding like a southern stereotype from a 1920’s cartoon. “We like corn,” they say whenever they open their mouth, whatever their actual words are.

I hate this because it’s cheap and lazy writing. Reggie would actually look better if he were surrounded by other smart turkeys, but like most of the film, FREE BIRDS, while well intentioned in its overall message and primary characters, would rather play cheap and broad than give us something substantial.

The other turkeys’ comeuppance happens when a helicopter approaches and they realize Reggie was right. Their response is to toss Reggie outside and let him get taken. Which he does, and this leads to him being the “pardoned turkey” that the President makes a show about every year.

America: Save one turkey so we can eat 30 million turkeys without guilt!

I’m just kidding, most people don’t feel any guilt.

The number that usually gets bandied about is that Americans consume between 40 and 50 million turkeys for Thanksgiving, but the Wall Street Journal has demonstrated why this is problematic. The number that does seem to work is that in the final quarter of each year, Americans consume close to 70 million turkeys. Which, whatever number you like, we eat a crapton of turkeys in this country. The exact number is probably less important than the concept that does get some screen time early in FREE BIRDS, which is that people like to associate certain foods with certain holidays. If we unburdened the turkey from Thanksgiving, it’s inevitable that there would be less that the 300 million or so turkeys killed annually in the United States.

And that’s the idea that FREE BIRDS wants to address, so someone in the production office was interested in giving this film a brain.

As far as messages go, I’m not opposed to one that asks us to eat less meat. I’m not vegan or vegetarian or pescetarian, but I do try to eat as little meat as possible. I find decreasing – but not eliminating – my intake of meat makes me appreciate it more. I go as meatless as possible in November, so when I do get to Thanksgiving, that turkey tastes as good as it’s ever going to taste.

And turkey tastes awesome. I could give up pig rather easily, cow a little less so, but chicken and turkey would be much harder to let go.

After becoming the pardoned turkey, Reggie turns into something of an entitled dick. It is funny watching him become a pizza whore, having pizza after pizza delivered to Camp David, where he has become the pet of the President’s daughter. He’s lost any thought of concern for the other turkeys, who have presumably been sent to slaughter.

One thing you will notice about Reggie is that he’s much smaller than the other turkeys, due to his lack of corn gorging. In fact, this is why the President doesn’t want to pardon him, knowing a bigger turkey is better PR, but his daughter demands it and so he does it. Most Presidentially-pardoned turkeys are just as artificially fattened as the non-pardoned birds, and so while they’re allowed to live out the rest of their days, the rest of their days does not usually last all that long.

Reggie’s life as an entitled pizza eater is interrupted by the arrival of Jake (Woody Harrelson), who is the leader of the Turkey Liberation Front. The two birds don’t get along (of course) and end up in an underground Army facility where they hijack a time machine (of course). Then they go into the past and things get worse as we enter a whole, extended equation between the plight of turkeys and the plight of American Indians. It’s mostly painful to watch.

I’ve written before about taking serious historical issues and running them through a pop culture blender. I’m neither wholly opposed or supportive of the idea because the execution is what matters, and the execution here is lacking. Everything is played just a bit too broad for any actual message to have meaning.

The best part of the film is the talking time machine, STEVE, and that’s because STEVE is voiced by George Takei and everything George Takei seems to do these days is awesome. The rest of the film’s approach to science fiction is neither enjoyable nor thoughtful nor entertaining.

The film’s best joke is its final joke, as Jake leaves via STEVE only to return with a chicken and a duck in his hands, asking, “Have you heard of a turducken?” This effectively sets up a sequel I can’t imagine we’ll ever see.

I dunno. A very brief, semi-likable start is quickly derailed and FREE BIRDS never recovers.

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