“The only message in it is all the holidays are about pressing pause in your life and getting together with the people that you love and appreciating them.”
--Jimmy Hayward, writer-director of Free Birds
It may be true that Jimmy Hayward had no political or social agenda when he co-wrote the animated adventure-comedy Free Birds, a time travel romp which sends a pair of turkeys back to 1621 to interfere with the pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving feast and try to “take turkeys off the menu.” Filmmakers frequently disavow any ulterior motive when they make films that could be controversial, but maybe he really thought it was just a good story. Frankly, his intentions are his own business. We vegetarians don’t get much entertainment of our own, and a Thanksgiving fantasy in which a turkey pardoned by the President and a commando from the Turkey Freedom Front go on a mission “not just to save 10 turkeys or 100 turkeys, but all turkeys for all time” is pretty mind-blowing. Of course we’re likely to be reminded almost as soon as we leave the cinema that the slaughter continues, but you can’t change the future if you can’t imagine how different it could be. Free Birds works the way The Yes Men’s fantasy newspaper headlines did in their prank New York Times issues, or the way John Lennon’s lyrics in “Imagine” do. They affirm that you can, in fact, imagine a Thanksgiving tradition in which the pilgrims ate boxed pizza. It’s easy if you try.
The movie doesn’t advocate a totally plant-based diet, so I’m afraid vegans might not be fully satisfied. And in one shot a pizza even has anchovies! But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the stacks of pizzas delivered via time machine do seem to be just cheese pizzas with tomato sauce -- no meat is in evidence. Moreover, the fact that Woody Harrelson’s voice is in this movie is a significant part of its delights. Not only does his deft vocal performance have beautiful comic timing as a self-important, barrel-chested turkey warrior for the cause, but the presence of this premier vegan in a growing list of celebrity herbivores (which includes not only Bill Clinton but now Al Gore), speaks to the positive spirit of the film. To have Harrelson playing Jake, the most motivated, most activist turkey of them all, is an enjoyable in-joke.
Like Chicken Run, irrepressible Aardman Animations’ take on another species of fowl who would rather live than be eaten, the plight of the characters in Free Birds is grim, but much less in a PETA spy-cam kind of way than in a boisterous, storybook adventure way. The Thanksgiving tradition may loom over the eponymous turkeys, but the specific villain is a scowling, Cockney military officer determined to hunt down the wild turkeys in the woods near the Puritans’ settlement, and most of the movie is about the wild birds’ attempts to stay safe in a vast underground colony while also carrying out guerrilla ambushes.
There’s just enough context to provoke thought – should the viewer so choose. The movie launches off with a powerful contrast between the Norman Rockwell glow that Thanksgiving brings to humans feasting on a succulent golden-brown bird and the horror felt in the breast of a member of that species – realizing for the first time the truth behind his kind’s coexistence with humans. The president’s public pardoning of one turkey also shows some of the hypocritical tension that lurks behind our eating habits: he makes a speech (voiced by Hayward himself) as he proudly rescues the lone turkey, excoriating the “terrible, but delicious” fate this one fortunate fowl has escaped.
Amusingly, when the turkey hero Reggie (Owen Wilson) warns his peers on the farm of the vast plot against them, none of them will believe him. They’re blissfully oblivious of the danger – and that’s because, Reggie’s voice-over tells us, turkeys are stupid. I like the implicit argument (which let me repeat is completely implicit) that even an unintelligent life form might want and deserve better than becoming our dinner. (A hierarchical Chain of Being is usually part of carnivores’ defenses of meat eating, even though it is a very vulnerable argument.) The complacency of the unsuspecting turkeys works as social satire as well: when the flock finally realizes that the intellectual Reggie, who they’ve been ostracizing, is right about why the farmer’s been fattening them up, they turn against him even more: because “he’s anti-corn.”
However, when Reggie ends up, through convoluted steps (and a time machine that’s an experiment of the U.S. military!), back in 1621, the wild turkeys he meets turn out to be completely different. They’re self-sufficient, alert, and much more pro-active; it’s apparently the domestication and dependency that dumbed the turkeys down. In case we might think this is only true for farm animals, there are also scenes of Reggie enjoying life as a remote-flipping, pizza-munching, couch potato addicted to Telenovelas. And when he’s in that mode, he has much less ambition and clarity than the more active turkeys. And so do we all.
The 17th century wild American turkeys have been forced further and further back off their land by the white Europeans – and since this mimics what happened to the Native Americans, it’s fitting that many of these turkeys paint their faces with war paint like in some indigenous tribes. The head of the wild flock is also presented very much like an Indian chief, and finds himself a victim of a similar march of progress. In the climax, the turkeys face off against the Europeans on the battlefield: the turkeys have only wooden spears and flaming pumpkins and are vastly outmatched by the settlers’ arsenal. It’s too bad that when a couple of real Native Americans do finally show up, there isn’t more thought given to their characters.
But for those who care about animal rights, it should be very significant that the movie has a scene set in a factory farm. “I didn’t grow up on a nice free-range farm,” Jake tells Reggie, jealous of the pastoral life the more passive turkey has led. Instead, Jake explains in a flashback to a severe, black, industrial, prison-like CAFO, he grew up “in a cold factory.” The spirits of all these turkeys imprisoned in a sunless grey wasteland are clearly broken. Rows upon rows of glum turkeys in shadowy metal cages set their hopes on Jake breaking out and starting a new, freer flock, but he is no match for the humans in lab coats and their oppressive technology. And this original trauma works even better as political commentary because it is woven into the core of Jake’s character development – and into the time travel plot.
Now, factory farms are actually much worse than how they are depicted in the movie – since in real life factory farmed fowl are crowded into these cages and often unable to turn around or stretch – but the fact that an escapist piece of mainstream entertainment intended for family viewing is painting one as dungeon-like is damn amazing, and credit should be given where due.
The main flaw of the picture, like that of so many movies but particularly animated ones, is that the ratio of male characters to female characters is about 90 to 1. These movies seem to think they’re feminist because they have a gutsy heroine – the chief’s daughter, voiced very well by Amy Poehler, has plenty of dialogue and is smart, resourceful, confident, a good leader, and all the rest of the attributes common these days among princessly heroines – but she’s the only female character in an entire turkey civilization who speaks more than a single sentence. In this respect the turkeys echo the humans in the settlement, where only the males are individualized. As per usual, the male characters cover a wide range of types – old, young, plump, wiry, brave, cowardly, brilliant, foolish, and so on – just as people do in real life. But the females are the Other, and since they are seen from the perspective of the male protagonists, they can only be Love Interests. (This was particularly egregious in Barnyard, a 2006 animated feature about a herd of male cows.) In Free Birds, even when a nursery of turkey chicks becomes part of the narrative, there seem to be no significant female turkeys anywhere in sight besides Poehler. The boy turkeys get to hog not only the allegedly male functions of driving the plot, having adventures, and solving problems, but here they even try on the traditional female functions of parenting the chicks. They get it all!
Hayward is co-writer, director, and also voice actor for a handful of roles in the picture – in other words, he is pulling a Brad Bird. Unfortunately, he hasn’t delivered a finished product that sparkles as much as it seems to want to do. The references cater more to the adults in the audience than to the kids, and the schtick gets in the way of the story sometimes because it goes on so long and is so tangential. Also, a fair number of the one-liners and gags don’t quite land, partly because the rhythm, as is so often the case in animated features, is relentlessly hyperactive. Now, if it had been one of the inventive Aardman Animations films it probably would have gotten more and more richly entangled at the climax – as it is, there’s a build and build and then a very quick and sudden resolution. But all in all, the story works. The premise is not only an animal liberationist’s dream, it’s also clever and spirited.
Vegetarians and animal rights activists ought to embrace this movie. Society cannot be changed just by sharing polemical documentaries with your circle (as terrific as Forks Over Knives and Harrelson’s own, Go Further, are). Some of the work of reform has to come about through sheer silliness. Like when the turkeys in Free Birds make imaginary binoculars with their feathered fingers, yet are convinced they really do see better with them. Or like the layers of jokey time travel loops which complicate the climax. Or like when Jake goes into a reverie about The Great Turkey in the sky, and each time, he stops and stares into space. Even though I had to look up what a Turducken was, it's worth waiting for the end of the credits to hear Jake’s horrified outrage about it.