Free Birds: A Thanksgiving Turkey, Neither Rare Nor Well-Done

Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson provide the voices of two time travelers to the first Thanksgiving

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Relativity Media / Turkey's Films, LLC.

The great cartoon fowls — Daffy Duck above all, of course, but also Donald and Daisy and Foghorn Leghorn and Henery Hawk — were capering capons safe from human predation. They lived in homes, not slaughter houses; they spoke, rather than clucking or quacking. And because these creatures bore only the vaguest resemblance to actual poultry, American kids didn’t go to KFC and fret over devouring Foghorn’s cousins. French children who loved Daffy weren’t traumatized when served canard à l’orange.

This Thanksgiving, though, if your young ones freak out when Father places the roast beast on the family dinner table, blame Free Birds. In the new animated feature from Jimmy Hayward, director of Horton Hears a Who!, Reggie (voiced by Owen Wilson), a brighter-than-average turkey who realizes that the life of his species is one brief conveyor-belt ride to decapitation, teams with a militant meleagris named Jake (Woody Harrelson) to go “back in time to the first Thanksgiving to get turkeys off the menu.” How’d that insurgency work out? Ask your bawling child four weeks from today.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Jimmy Hayward’s Horton Hears a Who!)

Reggie had been lucky: pardoned by the President in a pre-Thanksgiving ritual, he lolled around the White House dining on Chuck E. Cheese pizza (a naked product placement that pays off toward the end of the movie). With the help of Jake, and a convenient space ship, Reggie lands in 1621 in the Plymouth Colony, where the governor is a fat oaf and Myles Standish a blackguard with guillotine cheekbones. The rest of the settlers are undifferentiated villains — no sympathy here for the 4 percent of their colony who died the previous winter — while the Indians, the Pilgrims’ guests at that Thanksgiving chow-down, are portrayed as the good guys, when they show up at all. The film implies that Indians kept turkeys as pets, not as animals to be killed and eaten.

A movie of modest artistic or graphic ambitions — and only the second best time-travel story of the weekend (after About Time) — Free Birds might provide an anodyne entertainment for the kids if not for its political weirdness: it transfers the hardships, indeed the tragedy, of the Native American people to native American birds. The turkeys Reggie and Jake meet have aboriginal traits, including feathers and war paint, and live in tribes. Only Jenny (Amy Poehler), Reggie’s love interest, is assimilated into 21st-century cartoon jargon.

(READ: TIME readers’ 10 Questions for Amy Poehler)

Strip the movie of its sassy sitcom patter, which most non-Pixar animated features indulge in to excess, and this is a fable of slavery and potential genocide: a 12 Years a Turkey, or Schindler’s Lunch. The cartoonist Art Spielgelman defined a certain kind of concentration-camp melodrama as “Holo-kitsch.” Free Birds wants to be Holo-cute.

Back in 2000, in the sublime Chicken Run, Nick Park, Peter Lord and the stop-motion geniuses at Aardman Studios put poultry at the center of a World War II Great Escape story. Each chicken had her own personality; and we know that Allied soldiers did survive and break out of German prison camps. Free Birds offers only a chimerical fantasy that may give young viewers the glow of triumph for a few moments, and a primal scream on Thanksgiving Day.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Chicken Run)

To calm kids’ fevered hearts, have a DVD of The Essential Daffy Duck handy. It’s great popular art, and the best form of child therapy.

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