It's as fair a question as any: Why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving rather than, say, chicken or pork? Tofurkey, turducken and other alternatives aside, it seems like turkeys get a raw deal on an annual basis. At long last, "Free Birds" is here to give voice (literally) to turkeys that want to live, and with any luck these turkeys will get their kind off the Thanksgiving menu forever.
OK, maybe that's an exaggeration. But "Free Birds," nicely animated by Reel FX Creative Studios and distributed through Relativity Media, does present an enjoyable hypothetical scenario with good laughs and a good heart. Blue-headed turkey Reggie (Owen Wilson) is different from the mindless redheads in his flock, and he knows it. He's also lucky enough to be presidentially pardoned during Thanksgiving season, which leads him to Camp David to watch telenovelas and eat pizza.
That is, until he's kidnapped by Jake (Woody Harrelson), a wild turkey with a crazy idea: He wants to travel back in time to the first Thanksgiving — Plymouth Colony, 1621 — and change history so turkeys aren't on the menu. After a cool time-travel sequence in a machine called S.T.E.V.E. (voiced by George Takei), they meet the leader of the local flock, Broadbeak (Keith David), his son, Ranger (Jimmy Hayward, who is also the director), and his daughter, Jenny (Amy Poehler). Predictably, alpha males Jake and Ranger battle for leadership roles while Reggie and Jenny fall in love. Although the premise is clever and fun, "Free Birds" isn't winning any awards for originality in terms of story arcs.
The animation is crisp and clear with vivid 3D, and the images range from present day to outer space to the distant past. There are enjoyable moments throughout, particularly when Poehler comes on and is able to provide her impeccable timing and wit. Wilson does well in the lead role, Harrelson is solid as the flashier-but-less-grounded co-lead, and kudos to Colm Meaney (best known for his role as Miles o'Brien in various "Star Trek" TV shows) for nicely snarling his way along as the villain, Captain Standish.
Watching the film, you quickly become curious as to how it will end. Convention dictates that the heroes, the turkeys, achieve their goal at the end of the 91-minute running time. But for them to do that would mean turkeys are no longer eaten at Thanksgiving, which defies a 150 year-old American tradition. How it all plays out works for the movie, if not reality.
Speaking of reality, although the PG-rated film is perfectly fine for youngsters, there might be some little ones who have trouble differentiating reality from fantasy, and if so, those children might not want to eat turkey this Thanksgiving. That's the risk facing parents who take their impressionable kids to "Free Birds": Although it's very enjoyable and good for a smile, there's a clear message that it doesn't have to be turkey on Thanksgiving Day, so adults should be prepared to address this after the film.