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What if your species was on the holiday menu every year? Wouldn’t you want to do something about that? In the new animated movie “Free Birds,” Reggie the turkey (voiced by Owen Wilson) has always dreaded Thanksgiving, seeing members of his flock taken away to be cooked for dinner. But, his radical ideas make him an outcast in the flock, never really fitting in or belonging with his group. One day however, Reggie is proclaimed the pardoned turkey by the President. At Camp David, Reggie lives out the life of his dreams: pizza, television, and no fear of death.
But, Reggie’s paradise is short-lived when he is snatched by Jake (voiced by Woody Harrelson), a heroic but dim-witted turkey who drags Reggie into his plan to infiltrate a secret government-designed time machine “S.T.E.V.E.” (Space Time Exploration Vehicle Envoy). Their elaborate mission’s objective is to travel back to the first Thanksgiving in 1621 to get turkeys off the menu. But, along the way they encounter flamethrower-wielding soldiers and pilgrims determined to acquire food for the great feast. Will Reggie and Jake be able to save the colonial turkeys from being served on the dinner plate?
I really enjoyed this film’s slapstick physical humor and wit. Another thing I enjoyed about “Free Birds” is its interesting perspective on a widely known tradition. There have been movies about Thanksgiving, but none from a turkey’s perspective until now. The animation is average quality, however: nothing too unique about the CGI style. But, the concept is very interesting, and unique one as well. I noticed that the President’s young daughter in “Free Birds” doesn’t seem to have a filter when she speaks, blurting out “uncomfortable observations” about the adults around her, which is funny.
For this film, I returned to the 5-star Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills for the press junket, the same place I visited for the “How to Train Your Dragon” junket when I was ten. Even after the second time, the hotel still hasn’t lost its wonder. In the hotel, there were all sorts of fancy rooms, a garden, and a pool, and the Italian restaurant Culina with amazing food. In the room there was a flat-screen TV, a mini-bar, and even a personal iPad. At the concierge’s desk, I remembered that 3 years ago I had asked for toys. However, I didn’t ask for one this time as I have outgrown the toys. At the press junket, we enjoyed various dishes with themes from “Free Birds.”
I had the great opportunity to interview the main voice actors. Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson. Owen is an Oscar-nominated actor who has starred in films such as Midnight in Paris, and Woody Harrelson is a two-time Oscar nominee as well, and played the role of Haymitch in the upcoming film “The Hunger Game – Catching Fire.” A fun fact about the film: the studio had to separate the two actors while recording because they would goof off together and not get much done when they were in the same room, much like how teachers separate friends for goofing around. Click HERE to watch my interview with them and see what I am talking about.
The other actress I had more fun interviewing is the famous Amy Poehler, known for being a cast member on Saturday Night Live and co-hosting the Golden Globe with fellow comedian Tina Fey in 2013. In “Free Birds,” she played the role of Jenny, the daughter of the Native turkey tribe’s chief and the love interest of Reggie. Jenny aims to stop the Pilgrims and keep her flock safe. During the interview, Amy and I discussed the essence of comedy, and what surprising extras went into deleted scenes. Throughout the interview, she cracked jokes and responded to my questions in truly unexpected ways. Click HERE to watch my full interview here and you will understand why she is such a talented comedian and actress.
There are a few flaws in the film. For example, in one part of the film, Jake the turkey got a splinter on the tip of his feather, even though a feather doesn’t have the nerve endings to feel. I enjoyed interviewing Jimmy Hayward, the director who gave a reasonable rebuttal. “Since turkeys don’t have fingers and opposable thumbs, I had to make the four feathers on the turkey’s wings become fingers,” he said. “Turkeys’ wrists are bent [differently from humans’ wrists] and have different joints than humans do to be able to flap their wings. But, I needed to have them do stuff like push buttons or choke each other and pick up weapons.” So, he spent a great deal of time designing the turkeys’ wings so they could pick up things and do everything that humans could by “opening up the flight feather to use as an opposable thumb”. So, once you can really believe that Jake’s wing is like a hand with fingers, “once you’re into the movie…the joke of Jake getting a splinter on his feather is believable, since he uses them to touch and feel things with tactile responses.”
Also, the time machine “S.T.E.V.E.” created a vortex that could suck up anything: people, computers, and papers. However, near the end of the film, the vortex only sucked up magnetic and metal things. The director explained that he realized the discrepancy when the animation got to that point, but redoing the previous scene would be a million-dollar mistake. So, he made the savvy and frugal decision to keep the scene that way. Being a director is all about these important decisions, and I think he made the right choice.
I asked director Hayward why does the time machine “S.T.E.V.E.” apparently understand turkey talk, while humans don’t in this film. He said that in the script he actually had a moment where the machine says “Translating to turkey”. In the end, it is a decision to trust the audience and not to take them out of the movie to be explained to. “The purpose of the film is to be entertaining”. Therefore, in essence, the director thought all about this scene, and decided not to include it because it would slow down the plot. “We’ll call it poetic license.”
The least satisfying answer the director gave was about the time machine sucking up only things that the plot called for towards the end of the film vs. everything earlier in the film. “The idea was that it picks up everything that is magnetic…but once we had already made the first scene there everything floats up in the air, it was later when we decided that it would only take in things that are magnetic. That was a money decision…it would cost a million dollars more to go back and redo the scene, so that was actually a flaw in the film that you caught that we knew about, but we didn’t go back and fix. Also, don’t forget that S.T.E.V.E. the time machine is a conscious being, and can pick up whatever he wants.” I thought he could have a better plot to avoid the inconsistency.
Director Hayward was among Pixar’s early animators, having worked on the groundbreaking film Toy Story, followed by Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo. He later joined 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios and directed “Horton Hears A Who!”. He told me that the theme of “Free Birds” was that, “Holidays are an important time for loved ones to come together, and you’re a part of something bigger than yourself: you’re part of your flock.” He also added some insight on what he learned as a director and an animator. “When you’re working with a group of people, you might have your own ideas, but you need to keep an open mind to some people who may have a better idea than you. The most important thing is being open-minded, and the ability to work well with other people.”
I think that this film’s age group is for all ages. Although there is a bit of cartoon action and fighting, I think that kids of any age will enjoy this film a lot. I rate this film 4 starfish. Will you choose to still eat turkey after watching “Free Birds?” I wonder which holiday the next animation film will overthrow?
Perry Chen is the youngest award-winning film/ entertainment critic & animator, artist, speaker, and entertainment personality. He started writing movie reviews at 8 using a kid-friendly starfish rating system, under the guidance of his mom Dr. Zhu Shen and his 3rd grade teacher Ms. Harris. Perry’s debut on the CBS Evening News in 2009 made him a national sensation. He has been featured extensively on local, national, and international media, including NPR, Fox, CNN, NBC, The Guardian, The China Press, and many more. He has interviewed prominent filmmakers at film festivals, red carpet premieres, and press junkets. He won a prestigious “Excellence in Journalism Award” at the San Diego Press Club in 2010 as its youngest member. Perry currently writes movie reviews for the Animation World Network, San Diego Union Tribune, Amazing Kids! Magazine, and his own Perry’s Previews website with a combined readership of over 2 million worldwide. Perry and his family live in the community of Carmel Valley San Diego.
Dr. Zhu Shen’s love for the movies started when she was a young girl, growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution where watching movies was the only entertainment available to the masses. Her journey to become a filmmaker took a convoluted path. She studied medicine at Peking Union Medical College before coming to the US and earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry from University of Colorado, and then an MBA from Cornell University’s Johnson School. She is a producer of the upcoming documentary feature “Average Joe on the Raw,” about journey into raw food and health. Dr. Shen is also an award-winning biotech executive, author, speaker, China business expert featured on national and trade media including CBS, Fox, Business Week, Pharmaceutical Executive, and more. She has worked at IBM, Bayer, Chiron, Immusol, and is the CEO of BioForesight, consulting on cross-Pacific life science business. *Photos of Perry Chen and Zhu Shen by Brian Bostrom.