Compared to the holiday season, Thanksgiving doesn’t have as many films that define its Christmas spirit, although there are a few. Notable films surrounding the holiday are A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, Planes, Trains and Cars, Tower Heist, and Miracles on 34th Street. Even Sami Raimi’s first Spiderman Movie has a Thanksgiving sequence that keeps popping up on social media or memes. A film released in 2013, free birds, takes the spirit of Thanksgiving and twists it into a rather odd tale.
Jimmy Hayward (Director of Horton hears a who from Dr. seuss) 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, for the first Thanksgiving in hopes of eliminating turkey from the menu. Still with us? While the film is aimed at children and families, there’s no denying its rather odd and unusual presentation. There’s something about this holiday movie that can only be described as…odd.
A complex plot that subverts expectations
free birds begins on Reggie’s home farm in modern times, where he is rejected by his fellow human beings. The turkeys in the opening act are taken to what they call “turkey paradise,” but the audience knows that’s not the case. This is similar to 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, expectations are set for some sort of redemption story in which Reggie might do his best to stay 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 starts a new life watching TV and eating Chuck-E-Cheese pizza every day. Yes, there is a Chuck E Cheese logo on the pizza boxes. Nonetheless, at this point in the film, expectations are completely deflected towards a possible turkey sleep story in which Reggie must return to what he now believes to be “turkey paradise”. However, the film flounders once again when viewers think it’s going to flounder.
The film takes a complete 180 because Reggie is now being recruited by Jake, a no-nonsense and rather brutal turkey who initially comes out of nowhere. He and Reggie embark on a First Thanksgiving mission where they must stop the pilgrims from killing and eating turkeys. It should be noted that the US government manufactured this time machine for unknown reasons 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. Where are we now? 1621!
1621 and Turkish traditions
When Jake and Reggie land in 1621, there is not a shred of awe for the native turkeys of the time. They fully accept these two time travelers as one of their own without a moment of inspection. That is beside the point. free birds shows these turkeys as representations of indigenous civilizations that have their own connection to the land around them and essentially live in peace, separated from the pilgrims. What the film wanted to convey with this herd of turkeys, which paint their faces and have their own rituals and way of life, becomes even clearer. The Pilgrims set fire to 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.
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 trying to save his tribe. In a ritual memorial ceremony in which the turkeys flap their wings and send feathers skyward, Jenny is elected chief.
So much happens in this 90-minute animated film that it becomes overwhelming to even think about. However, the film builds up that great third act where the turkeys face off against the pilgrim settlers all in one brave heart Fighting style for good and evil. That does not happen. What we get are the turkeys catapulting pumpkins into the village and a clever joke:
“Those are some angry birds.”
This quote from a Native American watching the “battle” is an apparent reference to the famous video game in which birds are catapulted into different structures. The movie is full of such puns and turkey humor. Some jokes land, but some seem to push the line into fairly unfunny territory. When Jake and Reggie land in 1621, Jake attempts to immediately take command and compete against Ranger (voiced by director Jimmy Hayward) for control of the herd. They engage in these never-ending showboating battles where they flex feathers and glutes in addition to physical combat. One match shows these turkeys inflating their wattles like balloons and smashing them against each other like sumo wrestlers. We don’t invent it.
The conclusion of this film shows the turkeys, pilgrims and Native Americans enjoying Chuck-E-Cheese pizza and how that 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 effects of this change (by turkeys) seem to have been noticed or even implied. Regardless, the film is fairly harmless and fun for kids and families. Strange as the film is, there is one element that deserves further analysis… The big turkey!
Throughout the film, Jake describes his close encounter with the great turkey. His disturbing backstory of loss and regret led him to wander alone where a ray of glowing light presented itself to him. A large and powerful turkey sent him on this mission to prevent pilgrims from using turkeys on Thanksgiving feasts. For what defines Jake’s entire childhood and adult life, it becomes his mission to carry out the word of the Great Turkey that bestowed on him a time button (a gold doorknob). This doorknob is not explained nor used to activate or even find the time machine. What it is…is just a doorknob. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Reggie and most native turkey tribes deny the existence of this great turkey from heaven. In the end, however, it is Reggie who decides to be brave enough to join the fight against the Pilgrims. Reggie decided to give up all hope and return home with the President’s daughter. However, he is told by several versions of him to rejoin the fight and that he belongs in 1621. This is the epic climax of Reggie’s redemption story, which we thought would be set in the first act. From zero to hero! So where is it taking us?
Nonetheless, he takes a doorknob from the front door to the George Takei machine, or time machine, to find young Jake and tell him to… find himself in the future. This sweeping paradox implies that Reggie is The Great Turkey and set the events of the film in motion, where many years later Jake eventually meets Reggie to begin this time-traveling expedition.
But why? Why did Reggie have to go back in time to inspire Jake when he could have just gone to the fight himself? The fight ended with a whirling time vortex in the sky, created by the machine that was transporting the pilgrims and their weapons to… somewhere. Perhaps this is digging too deep into the talking turkey fiasco. But so many questions warrant further reflection in this Thanksgiving film, available on Starz. Jokes aside, the film is self-aware of its ridiculous plot and often breaks the fourth wall. It’s funny at times and its presentation is visually appealing. It’s a fun family movie this Thanksgiving season… but very, very unusual.