Film Eddie Cockrell longs for more laughs in holiday flick Free Birds
Free Birds (G) ★★✩✩✩ National release
Walking with Dinosaurs (PG) ★★ ✩✩
HE anthropomorphisation of animals in films is almost as old as the cinema itself, and two holiday releases, conceived, made and marketed to draw the undiscerning youngster, illustrate the risks and rewards of the conceit.
Celebrated each year on the fourth Thursday in November, the American holiday Thanksgiving has deep roots in cultural and religious traditions. It is a day to celebrate the year’s harvest by preparing a huge feast, the centrepiece of which is a giant turkey.
Giant turkey is also an accurate description of Free Birds, the new animated film keyed to the holiday.
It has an ill-conceived concept, a ridiculous script dotted with nonsensical non sequiturs, shrill voice performances and bland visuals. Children will be bewildered, adults will be bored and those culturally sensitive to Native Americans may find themselves appalled.
For years, a turkey named, for some reason, Reggie (Owen Wilson), has been warning his fellow fowls against the dangers of being too complacent in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. When Reggie finds himself headed for a date with the axe, he is saved at the last minute by the daughter (Kaitlyn Maher) of the US president (voiced by the film’s director, Jimmy Hayward). Another holiday tradition involves the president pardoning one bird a year in a show of goodwill (no, really, it’s true).
Soon Reggie is living in the lap of luxury at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the hills of Maryland. He spends his days watching telenovelas and ordering lots of pizza.
Unfortunately, he’s kidnapped soon after by Jake, an agitated bird who claims to represent the Turkey Liberation Front and is on a mission to travel back in time to 1621 and one of the first Thanksgivings at the Plymouth colony in what is now Massachusetts. Once there, he’ll figure out a way to have turkey ‘‘ taken off the menu’’ — thus saving an untold number of his brethren.
There just so happens to be a time machine named S.T.E.V.E. (Space Time Exploration Vehicle Envoy, voiced by original Star Trek’s Mr Sulu, George Takei) in a research lab adjacent to Camp David, so it’s forward into the past for Reggie and Jake.
Immediately attacked by Myles Standish (Colm Meaney) and his henchmen, the pair end up in the vast underground hiding place of a band of nonviolent wild turkeys led by Chief Broadbeak (Keith David). Reggie falls for his daughter Jenny (Amy Poehler), Jake begins a competition with his son Ranger (Hayward again), and the story begins its descent into an overstuffed final third that plays fast and loose with the already implausible concept of time travel and posits a turkey substitute guaranteed to cause Americans worldwide to cringe in embarrassment.
Nobody watches a film like Free Birds for logic, but a coherent storyline would be nice, as would a few laughs. Then there’s the dubious decision to present the wild turkeys in the war paint and headdresses of Native Americans; the most charitable word that can be used to describe this is insensitive.
Audiences weren’t celebrating Free Birds stateside: the film was a conspicuous financial failure at the box office, and has routinely shown up on lists of the year’s worst films — where it deserves pride of place. THE Australian digital visual effects house Animal Logic is behind the eye-popping creature effects in Walking with Dinosaurs, a dazzlingly made but regrettably dumbeddown film inspired by the popular 1999 British miniseries. While their work on the movie is accomplished, the late-in-production decision to give voice to the animals is a misguided one.
Seventy million years ago, during the late cretaceous period, a young pachyrhinosaurus called Patchi, voiced by Justin Long, is the runt of his Alaskan litter. As the herd embarks on its annual end-of-summer migration to southern feeding grounds, tragedy and triumph assail them in equal measure. Patchi and his sibling Scowler (Skyler Stone) lose their father Bulldust in an attack; Patchi is drawn to the elusive young pachyrhinosaurus Juniper (Tiya Sircar); they’re set upon by a pack of fierce gorgosaurus; the trio is swept down a raging river; and so on.
As the years progress, Patchi matures and becomes a seasoned traveller, eventually wresting command of the herd from the territorial Scowler following a one-onone battle.
Along the way, narration and banter are provided by Patchi’s affable avian mate Alex (John Leguizamo), a black and red alexornis who flies high above the herd as events unfold. Musical interludes come in the form of contemporary song snippets, including, somewhat inevitably, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk.
There have been numerous spinoffs of the lucrative ‘‘ Walking with . . .’’ franchise, of course, including beasts, cavemen and monsters. Walking with Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular, was a large-scale stage show that originated in Australia and toured the world from 2007 to 2012. The eventual single goal of this film seems to have been attracting the lucrative children’s market. This is achieved at the expense of nuance and a purely visual mode of storytelling. Dialogue is written and phrased to take advantage of the contemporary snark of childhood attitudes.
‘‘ Sometimes you just gotta think outside the nest,’’ Patchi says at one point. Thankfully, screenwriter John Collee takes his own advice and has sly fun with Alex’s comically eloquent narration, with Leguizamo’s deliberate channelling of Ricardo Montalban in his vocal performance rendering it the cleverest thing in an otherwise often frustratingly literal film. Stumbling on a gorgeous lakeside setting, Alex advises Patchi, ‘‘ it’s a future oil field, so don’t get too attached’’. Later, describing the gorgosaurus, he dissolves into laughter every time the camera glimpses the creature’s comically tiny arms.
That said, as the dinosaurs’ lips don’t actually move, if it were possible to turn down the sound in the cinema the film would play well to all ages. In its present form, however, Walking with Dinosaurs has been rendered a pretty and technically accomplished, if somewhat narratively conflicted, animal adventure.
‘‘ Every fossil tells a story,’’ Alex says in the opening minutes, and it’s a pity the one told here couldn’t have been left well enough alone.
Free Birds, top, is a turkey; while the voices spoil Walking with Dinosaurs,