Wednesday, November 27, 2013

'Free Birds' (2013) directed by Jimmy Hayward ★★

Free Birds is an animated film about talking time travelling turkeys, something that at the very least is a relatively high-concept idea. In terms of animated films we're just at the end of the Pixar renaissance; their unbroken streak of classics through the 2000s terminated by the run of Cars 2, Brave and Monsters University.  Thankfully there's some interesting stuff being made in response; animation companies realising that if they can't compete with Pixar's emotional heft, they can at least be funnier, to play the Bugs Bunny role to Pixar's Mickey Mouse.

We follow the tale of scrawny misfit turkey Reggie (Owen Wilson), ostracised from his flock for trying to convince people that they're being fattened up to be eaten.  Fortunately he's saved from being killed by the intervention of the President, whose daughter selects Reggie as the one turkey to be pardoned at Thanksgiving.  Reggie then wallows in luxury until one day he's kidnapped by Jake (Woody Harrelson), an insane warrior turkey.  Jake's plan is to steal an experimental time machine (voiced by George Takei), travel back in time to the first Thanksgiving and get turkey off the menu, thus preventing an annual turkey massacre and saving turkeykind.

Marketing a Thanksgiving film outside the USA is a difficult task as these film tend to rely on the audience's emotional memory of their own family Thanksgivings.  So it's a clever choice that for the most part, Free Birds portrays the holiday from the turkey's point of view - an outsider's perspective.  I guess technically by the end of the holiday it'll have developed a literal insider's perspective, but by that point it'll be a pile of bones and cartilage so unlikely to have much insight.

The film has an interesting pedigree; director Jimmy Hayward has a 3D animation resume second-to-none, directing the first episodes of pioneering CG animated show ReBoot, before moving on to work on Toy Story, Monsters Inc and Finding Nemo.  Writer Scott Mosier comes from the Kevin Smith clique; producing and collaborating on every Kevin Smith movie from Clerks to Zack and Miri Make a Porno.  The two (who share credit for the script) have gelled well, settling for an irreverent tone that suits the absurd subject matter.

The problem is that this irreverent tone is pretty much the exact same irreverent tone and the exact same kinds of jokes that you see in practically every animated feature.  The high-mark of absurdist 3D animation is the excellent Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, which Free Birds suffers in comparison to.  Both movies have a pleasingly cavalier attitude to science and general sanity, as well as a preoccupation with food.  What harms Free Birds is its narrative rigidity, firmly sticking to some pretty bland time travel conventions.

It's frustrating really: the film has the potential to take some interesting swerves but never does.  The central conceit of time travel is unimaginatively realised, you'd assume a film about altering the past would result in some imaginative impact on the future - but there's nothing.  More egregiously Free Birds says next to nothing about the ethics of eating meat (which considering the film is about finding an alternative to killing turkeys for Thanksgiving) feels rather cowardly.

Free Birds opens with an excellent shot of a Thanksgiving dinner table with a succulent stuffed and roasted bird as the centrepiece.  The camera then pans upwards to see the horrified face of a turkey as he realises his destiny.  This is promising stuff - a mainstream children's film equating a likeable talking animal with dinner is relatively bold subject material for a children's film.  These opening scenes recall memories of Aardman Animation's excellent Chicken Run, and whet the appetite for a film that's not only funny, but might actually have something to say.

Unfortunately it quickly transpires Free Birds is absolutely terrified of actually having any message at all.  The idea of our lead characters being killed, cooked and eaten quickly devolves into an abstract notion rather than a real danger.  This robs the characters of any real motivation and ever-so-slowly anything unique drains away to be replaced with the same samey, sludgy morass you could find in any number of identikit children's animation. What remains is a tired old Ferngully rip-off where the turkeys play vaguely offensive, dated Native American stereotypes as they wage warfare against the first settlers.

For all that there's nothing technically ruinous about the film, the voice-over cast do a largely professional job (George Takei as the time machine is probably the funniest thing in the film) and the animation is broadly competent in a by-the-numbers sort of way but won't show you anything haven't seen in a hundred other movies.  As a side note, many of the character designs look created capitalise on the success of Angry Birds, which is a rather cynical way to promote your movie. The one highlight is chief villain Myles Standish, who benefits from an interesting, well-animated design and being voiced by everyone's favourite grumpy Irishman Colm Meaney. 

It's not that this is a particularly awful film, and I'm sure its target audience of children will gobble it up (no pun intended).  Unfortunately children are stupid and tasteless and will happily watch anything if it's got talking CG animals in it.  It's the adults that'll have to see this with their children that I feel vaguely sorry for.  On their good days Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks and so on can put out films that appeal to everyone under the sun.  Judging by Free Birds there's no technical reason this studio can't aspire to this same level, the only thing holding them back is the cowardly desire to dumb things down and play it safe.

Free Birds is on general release from 29th November 2013

Tags: , , , , ,

0 Responses to “'Free Birds' (2013) directed by Jimmy Hayward ★★”

Post a Comment

© All articles copyright LONDON CITY NIGHTS.
Designed by SpicyTricks, modified by LondonCityNights