This year has seen the family animation arena dominated by sequels despicable, monstrous and concerned with a chance of meatballs. The Croods (2013) aside, children’s cinema has had something of a subdued year; for every inventive sugar-high there’ve been a handful of insipid come-downs. Expectations now are generally higher due to Pixar’s stellar run through the noughties and a selection of other corkers, but invention and wit have been fairly scarce of late. Regrettably, precious little of either was left over for Thanksgiving release Free Birds (2013) which is unlikely to appeal to kids or accompanying adults.
The yarn’s plot sees smarter-than-your-average turkey Reggie (Owen Wilson) realise the fate that awaits he and his brethren come November, but something of an outcast from the flock. All rather dimwitted, they fail to heed his warnings only to turn on him when the time comes for the farmer to select one of their number. As luck would have it, Reggie is chosen for the president’s annual pardon but he’s soon plucked from a life of luxury at Camp David by the eccentric soldier-turkey Jake (a game Woody Harrelson). He’s received word from the “Great Turkey” that the two of them must travel to 1621, in an egg-shaped time machine (George Takei) stolen from the US military, and remove turkeykind from the inaugural Thanksgiving menu.
It’s the sort of premise that seems destined for a wacky odd-couple romp with a pop-culture spewing protagonist and his tough but brainless pal playing it fast and loose in 17th century Massachusetts. Oh, were that the case. Reggie is a miserably uninteresting hero neither cool, funny nor charming enough to carry the weight of Free Birds – he’s more than a few “ka-chows” short of Wilson’s more well known four-wheeled voice role. Equally, Harrelson is able to bring nothing to the lumbering Jake, who is never as hilarious or offbeat as the film clearly hopes that he is.
The supporting characters are littered with oddball touches that may raise the occasional titter from younger audiences – a lazy eye, a demented turkey/chicken hybrid – but even those will be half-hearted at best. Similarly, the animation is pleasing enough to look at but never soars given a narrative completely devoid of opportunity to flex its computer generated pecks. If you’re looking for something whip-smart and endearing, you’d be best advised to look elsewhere. Rather than a holiday treat, Free Birds has itself ended up something of a Thanksgiving turkey.