Film Ed­die Cock­rell longs for more laughs in hol­i­day flick Free Birds

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Ed­die Cock­rell

Free Birds (G) ★★✩✩✩ Na­tional re­lease

Walk­ing with Di­nosaurs (PG) ★★ ✩✩

Na­tional re­lease

T

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,

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