FREE BIRDS – Blu-ray review

2013 was a good year for animation, with audiences enjoying high-profile titles like “Monsters University” and “Frozen” (Disney), “The Croods” (DreamWorks), “Despicable Me 2” (Universal), “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2” and “The Smurfs 2” (Sony), as well as “The Wind Rises” and “From up on Poppy Hill” (Studio Ghibli).

But retreads like “Turbo” (“DreamWorks”) never seemed to gain traction with viewers, nor did “Epic” and “Free Birds,” both from 20th Century Fox Animation.

With “Epic,” it was a case of being too familiar, too derivative . . . and “Free Birds” was
maybe a little TOO free.

“Free Birds” gets off to a great start, with young turkey Reggie (Owen Wilson) feeling like an outcast because he’s the only one who “gets” it. All of the other turkeys on the farm are dumb, he says—so dumb they think the farmer’s their friend. Their world revolves around corn, corn, and more corn, and when Reggie tries to tell them they’re only being fattened for the kill, he might as well be talking to the stump that awaits them.

Then one day what I thought was the high concept kicks in: Reggie is plucked from the yard and taken away to what he’s sure is his doom. But instead of going to the chopping block he’s taken to the White House, where another turkey is chosen over him to be pardoned in the traditional pre-Thanksgiving ceremony on the lawn. As (his) fate would have it, the president’s daughter likes Reggie better and pitches a fit to get her own way. The next thing you know she’s carrying Reggie aboard the presidential helicopter and he finds himself living in the lap of luxury at Camp David.

My kids had seen the trailer for “Free Birds” and were heartily unimpressed, but I called them in to watch the film with me at this point because it had some funny lines, some funny characters—like the narcoleptic president’s daughter—and a situation that seemed to me ready for the plucking. What sort of mischief will befall Reggie at Camp David?

I thought there were plenty of possibilities that would have made “Free Birds” a really entertaining and funny film. But then something “funny” happened. It turns out that the trip to Camp David was only the means of dropping Reggie on the threshold of the REAL high concept driving this animated feature:  a commando-style turkey named Jake (Woody Harrelson), who thinks he saw the Great Turkey and was commanded to change the course of turkey history by going back in a time machine that the Great Turkey told him was hidden away at Camp David, snatches Reggie and gets him to go back to the future with him to Plymouth Rock to “get turkey off the menu.”

Okay, fine. But since turkey IS on every Thanksgiving menu, still, then obviously Reggie and Jake are going to fail, or if they succeed we’re looking at one whopper of an illogical disconnect between the audience’s reality and the one that the filmmakers seem to be living.

Director Jimmy Hayward (“Jonah Hex”) is so bent on the time-travel angle that he doesn’t seem to recognize that the film was more interesting before the main characters board a time capsule named S.T.E.V.E. (George Takei). Once the characters get to Plymouth Plantation and Jake meets his clone in a puffed-chest gobbler named Ranger (Hayward) and an attractive female turkey named Jenny (Amy Poehler), things start to feel familiar, no matter how much energy and action the filmmakers try to add.

Then there’s the issue of Myles Standish, who is drawn and behaves more like an 1880’s Western desperado than a 17th-century militia leader.  And a large pack of vicious dogs that the pilgrims use to hunt down turkeys, and excessive Rambo-style traps that they set to capture them. You expect a level of exaggeration in film—especially when that film is an animated comedy—but this really seemed like overkill.

But when you begin with the outlandish premise of turkeys going back in time to fix it so the birds will no longer be an endangered species come Thanksgiving, everything that happens afterwards seems excessive—and (spoiler alert) I’m not even talking about an all-out attack that the turkeys mount on the pilgrims, wearing what seems to be war paint. Native Americans in the film remark, “Those are some angry birds,” but you’d have to imagine that their non-animated counterparts were not amused. In that, they’re not alone.

These birds are good to look at, and you can easily get caught up in the characters. But the situation is a bit too much to swallow . . . even for Thanksgiving.

As I said, “Free Birds” looks great, and you can’t say one negative thing about the quality or level of animation. Fox has also done a fantastic job with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc. Colors are nicely saturated, edges are sharply delineated, and there’s detail aplenty—even in the most action-packed scenes.

The audio is just as good. The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that’s as robust as can be, with sound spread naturally across the field and everything mixed so that dialogue is slightly dominant over the music and effects.

It’s telling that there’s no commentary. Instead, we get a four-minute segment in which animators talk about a dance sequence, another four-minute clip showing animators acting out a storyboard, a six-minute feature on the music that composer Dominic Lewis created for the film, an under two-minute segment showing a group of kids doing a Thanksgiving sketch that’s related to the film, and a teaser/trailer.

This combo pack comes with a DVD and UV copy of the film.

Bottom line:
“Free Birds” is the kind of film that will appeal mostly to children too young to question the film’s inconsistencies and excesses. And personally, I wish they had gone with the first high-concept idea, instead of pushing it to an even higher concept.