Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 10, 2014)
Once upon a time, I believed that animated holiday movies equaled a license to print money. However, recent semi-duds like Arthur Christmas and Rise of the Guardians made me question this theory.
In those cases, I excused their lack of box office prosperity due to different factors. I thought Arthur was too inherently British for US audiences, and I figured Rise focused so strongly on Jack Frost, a non-traditional holiday figure, that it alienated moviegoers.
So how do I explain the mediocre receipts that 2013’s Free Birds encountered? Maybe audiences don’t care about Thanksgiving movies – or maybe they just don’t want to watch mediocre Thanksgiving movies. While not without occasional charms, Birds fails to deliver much mirth.
For years, a turkey named Reggie (voiced by Owen Wilson) tries to warn his not-so-bright feathered friends to fear Thanksgiving as doomsday for their kind. Eventually Reggie gets plucked from his home farm, but he avoids a fiery fate.
Instead, Reggie finds himself in the midst of the president’s (Jimmy Hayward) annual “pardon the Thanksgiving turkey” PR session. The First Daughter (Kaitlyn Maher) decides she likes Reggie, so he winds up as pampered poultry with a cushy gig as First Bird.
Into this idyllic lifestyle steps an interloping turkey named Jake (Woody Harrelson). He tells Reggie that the government possesses a time machine and they should use it to head back to 1621.
Why? To alter the first Thanksgiving and get turkey off the national menu. We follow their exploits as they attempt this daunting task and encounter a mix of additional complications and characters.
Like many people, I sometimes check out Rotten Tomatoes before I see movies. I don’t take it as gospel, but it can be tough to argue with the consensus.
As such, the film’s 18 percent rating at RT gave me pause when I went to see Birds theatrically. Based on its previews, I thought it looked funny and felt surprised to see such consistently, severely negative reviews. Every once in a while, I think the consensus is wrong, and I hoped Birds would offer one of those cases. Heck, Despicable Me 2 has a 75 percent rating on RT, and I thought it was a bore.
Alas, I couldn’t disagree with the negative assessments of Birds. While it may not be as awful as that 18 percent would lead one to believe, the film becomes mediocre at best.
Honestly, I can’t quite figure out what went wrong. Birds comes with a good cast and a fun premise. It boasts many opportunities for clever jokes and exciting action bits. Director Jimmy Hayward turned a short story into a delightful animated flick via 2008’s Horton Hears a Who!, so how could be flop with this material?
I’m not sure, but flop he does. In essence, Birds offers a great concept and hopes that this theme will carry the day. It lacks the thought and narrative direction that it needs to make it more than just a cool idea.
Honestly, beyond “time-traveling turkeys try to change the first Thanksgiving”, I’m not sure anyone gave a lot more thought to the story. Or maybe they gave too much thought, as Birds steers away from its basic idea too often. It doesn’t seem sure of where it wants to go, so it flits and flaps its way around unnecessary plot/character areas.
These make the movie meander and ruin almost any positive potential it boasts. As much as Birds attempts to become epic and develop its characters, it falls flat. We just don’t really invest in much what we see.
Perhaps because they sensed how little meat came on its feathered bones, the actors work overtime to sell their characters. This tends to backfire, as the performers seem too eager to please. Rather than let the roles come across as natural within their circumstances, the actors usually overplay the parts and mar whatever minor comedic potential the film might’ve given to us. Some good line readings and laughs still result, but these seem rare.
All of this leaves Birds as a definite disappointment. I hoped I’d find a lively, freewheeling comedy with a bit of edge but instead, I got a dull, flat adventure with only occasional glimmers of amusement.