Compared to the Christmas season, Thanksgiving does not have as many films that define its holiday spirit, though there are some. Notable motion pictures which surround the holiday are A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Tower Heist, and Miracle on 34th Street. Even Sami Raimi’s first Spider-Man film has a Thanksgiving sequence that continues to resurface on social media or memes. However, one film released in 2013, Free Birds, takes the spirit of Thanksgiving and warps it into a rather strange narrative.
This animated family comedy was directed by Jimmy Hayward (director of Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who) and stars Owen Wilson, Amy Poehler, and Woody Harrelson as… talking turkeys. Reggie (Wilson) is a recently pardoned turkey who stumbles upon a time machine along with another turkey named Jake (Harrelson). Stay with us. Reggie and Jake enter a time machine voiced by George Takei to the first Thanksgiving in hopes of taking turkeys off the menu. Still with us? While the film is meant for children and families to enjoy, one can not deny its rather strange and unusual presentation. There is something about this holiday film which can only be described as… weird.
A Complex Plot That Subverts Expectations
Free Birds starts out in Reggie’s home farm in our modern day, where he is outcast by his fellow flock. The turkeys in the opening act are taken to what they think is “turkey paradise,” but the audience knows this is not the case. This resembles a more family friendly approach to what Seth Rogen later parodied in his not-so-family friendly animated film Sausage Party. At this point in the film, the expectations are set for a sort of redemption story where Reggie could try his best to get in with his flock and become part of the family. Well, you thought wrong.
However, Reggie is taken by men in suits to be pardoned by the President of the United States. He begins a new life where he watches TV and eats Chuck-E-Cheese pizza day in and day out. Yes, there is a Chuck-E-Cheese logo on the pizza boxes. Nevertheless, at this point in the film, expectations are completely diverted to possibly a turkey-napping story where Reggie has to go back to what he now thinks is “turkey paradise.” However, the film yet again zigs when viewers think it will zag.
The film takes a complete 180 because Reggie is now recruited by Jake, a no-nonsense and rather brutish turkey who comes out of nowhere initially. He and Reggie embark on a mission to the first Thanksgiving where they have to stop the pilgrims from killing and eating turkeys. It should be important to note that the U.S. government made this time machine for reasons unknown and their operation was hijacked by turkeys who literally stole the time machine. We never see the President, his operation, or any of the elements of the first act again. So where are we now? 1621!
1621 and Turkey Traditions
When Jake and Reggie land in 1621, there isn’t a speck of awe from the native turkeys of this time period. They completely accept these two time travelers as one of their own without a moment of inspection. This is beside the point. Free Birds showcases these turkeys as representations of Indigenous civilizations who have their own connection to the land around them and essentially live in peace separated from the pilgrims. It becomes even more obvious what the film was trying to convey with this turkey flock, who paint their faces and have their own rituals and ways of living. The pilgrims torch and destroy their home and force the turkeys out. This could be a representation of what atrocities the European settlers did to the Native population.
In addition, there is also a love story between Reggie and Jenny, the daughter of the chief of this turkey tribe (played by Amy Poehler). This chief, played by Keith David, dies whilst trying to save his tribe. In a ritualistic memorial ceremony where the turkeys flap their wings and send feathers into the heavens, Jenny is chosen as chief.
There is so much going in this 90 minute animated flick that it becomes overwhelming to even ponder. However, the film sets up this grand third act where the turkeys will face the pilgrim settlers in a Braveheart style battle for good and evil. This… does not happen. What we do get are the turkeys catapulting pumpkins into the village and one clever joke:
“Those are some angry birds.”
This quote from a Native American observing the “battle” is an obvious nod to the famous video game where birds are catapulted into various structures. The film is loaded with these kinds of puns and turkey humor. Some jokes land, but some seem to push the line to a rather unfunny territory. When Jake and Reggie land in 1621, Jake tries to immediately take charge and compete against Ranger (voiced by director Jimmy Hayward) for control of the flock. They engage in these endless showboating bouts where they flex feathers and glutes, in addition to physical altercations. One fight shows these turkeys inflating their wattles like balloons and slamming them into each other like sumo wrestlers. We are not making this up.
The conclusion of this film shows the turkeys, pilgrims, and Native Americans enjoying Chuck-E-Cheese pizza, and how this tradition now takes over Thanksgiving. Turkeys are no longer on the menu. However, the rules of time travel clearly don’t seem to apply. No other implications of this change (made by turkeys) seems to have been noted or even implied. Regardless, the film is rather harmless and is a fun ride for kids and families. As weird as the film is, there is one element that does beg further dissection… The Great Turkey!
The Great Turkey
Throughout the film, Jake describes his close encounter with the Great Turkey. His troubled backstory of loss and regret led him alone to wander about, where a beam of glowing light presented itself to him. A great and mighty turkey sent him on this mission to stop the pilgrims from using turkeys on Thanksgiving feasts. For what becomes Jake’s entire childhood and adult life, it becomes his mission to carry out the word of the Great Turkey who bestowed upon him a time-knob (a golden door knob). This door knob is not explained nor utilized as a way to activate the time machine or even find it. What it is… is just a door knob. Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.
Reggie and most of the native turkey tribe deny the existence of this Great Turkey from the sky. However, it ends up being Reggie who decides to be brave enough to join the fight against the pilgrims. Reggie decided to abandon all hope and return to his home with the President’s daughter. However, he is told by multiple versions of himself to rejoin the fight and that he belongs in 1621. This is the epic climax of Reggie’s redemption story we thought was going to be set-up in the first act. From zero to hero! So where does it lead us?
Nevertheless, he takes a door knob from the front door of the house to the George Takei machine, or the time machine, to find young Jake and tell him to find… himself in the future. This widely complex paradox implies that Reggie is The Great Turkey and set the events of the film in motion where Jake eventually meets Reggie many years later to start this time traveling expedition.
But… why? Why did Reggie have to go back to the past to inspire Jake when he could have just gone to the fight itself? The fight ended with a swiveling time vortex in the sky created by the machine that swoops up the pilgrims and their weapons into… somewhere. Perhaps this is digging too deep into the talking turkey fiasco. But so many questions beg further thought in this Thanksgiving film that is available on Starz. Jokes aside, the film is self aware of its ridiculous plot and often breaks the fourth wall. It is funny at times and its presentation is visually appealing. It is a fun film for the family this Thanksgiving season… but very, very unusual.
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