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Free Birds: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD UltraViolet Review

Free Birds (2013) movie poster Free Birds

Theatrical Release: November 1, 2013 / Running Time: 91 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Jimmy Hayward / Writers: David I. Stern, John J. Strauss (story); Scott Mosier, Jimmy Hayward (screenplay)

Voice Cast: Owen Wilson (Reggie), Woody Harrelson (Jake), Amy Poehler (Jenny), George Takei (S.T.E.V.E.), Colm Meaney (Captain Myles Standish), Keith David (Chef Broadbeak), Dan Fogler (Governor Bradford), Jimmy Hayward (Ranger, Leatherbeak, President, Hazmat), Kaitlyn Maher (President's Daughter), Carlos Alazraqui (Amos), Jeff Biancalana (General Sagan), Danny Carey (Danny), Carlos Ponce (Narrator, Alejandro), Robert Beltran (Chief Massasoit), Lesley Nicol (Pilgrim Woman), Jason Finazzo (Chrononaut One), Scott Mosier (Pizza Dude)

Buy Free Birds from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD UltraViolet DVD Instant Video

Relativity Media gets into the lucrative CG feature animation game with Free Birds. The debut theatrical production of Reel FX Animation Studios,
an offshoot of a 20-year-old visual effects house, this family comedy also sets out to do something about the dearth of Thanksgiving movies.

Other turkeys are dumb, our gangly protagonist Reggie (voiced by Owen Wilson) tells us. But he's different. Reggie's propensity for thought and his blue head distinguish him from the others in the flock, making him an outcast and a loner. When authorities come looking for a turkey, Reggie is given to them and while that seems bad at first, it gives him the honor of being the turkey to receive the annual Thanksgiving Day pardon from the President of the United States (who looks like Mitt Romney but talks like Bill Clinton via one of director Jimmy Hayward's four credited roles). Reggie is embraced by the president's impulsive, outspoken young daughter. Meanwhile, he discovers the joys of television and delivery pizza.

Back in 1621, Reggie and Jake realize they're the targets of three fast-approaching hunting dogs.

Then, Reggie is approached by Jake (Woody Harrelson), a red-headed turkey who plans to travel back in time to the first Thanksgiving to take turkeys off the November holiday's menu. Claiming he was sent by "The Great Turkey" and wielding "the Sacred Time Knob" (a golden doorknob), the gullible Jake voices his plan multiple times to let it sink in for the audience. Why not? It's by far the most clever idea in the film. With some nimble maneuvering, Reggie and Jake actually wind up traveling back to November 1621, three days before the original Thanksgiving, in an experimental government aircraft. The vessel is named S.T.E.V.E., which stands for something you won't remember, and is wryly and authoritatively voiced by George Takei.

Reggie is surprised to find that the turkeys of the 17th century are smarter than the ones of his time. Roaming freely keeps their minds sharp and the turkeys have even established an underground community (complete with ethnic caricatures in minor roles) and hierarchy to avoid hunters. Led by the dark and ominous Captain Myles Standish (perhaps an ode to Hayward's previous film, Jonah Hex; Colm Meaney), those hunters are scrambling to acquire enough food for the coming winter and to make good on Governor Bradford's (a character resembling Pocahontas' villain; Dan Fogler) promised feast.

That requires a unified defense plan for the turkeys. Meanwhile, Reggie quickly falls for Jenny (Amy Poehler), the chief's daughter whose left eye goes wonky when she's nervous. Jake gets caught up in one-upmanship with Jenny's Alpha Male brother Ranger (also Hayward).

Jenny's left eye goes wonky at the outer space view of Earth from the time machine. Governor Bradford and hunter Myles Standish split villain duties as pilgrims to be avoided and not trusted.

After a promising start, Free Birds starts to settle for slapstick gags and other obnoxious comedy. Some clumsy character development emerges through shameless exposition. The buddy comedy is derivative (seemingly built on the original Toy Story's structure) and severely lacking in wit. The action is fairly generic and unexciting. Time travel paradoxes are embraced, knowing full well no one will care enough to try to figure out if they actually make sense.
Lazy, inconsistent product placement stretches the budget a bit. Then, for some reason, the film decides to get serious and dramatic for much of its final half-hour. As designed, the plot can't give us the happy ending we want, but then remember the sarcastic disclaimer with which the film opens gives it license to have its way with history.

Free Birds was hammered by critics and understandably so. It's late to the CG family film party and it doesn't bring anything particularly special. "Yet another talking animal comedy" may be your initial thought. At least this one centers on turkeys, a species that hasn't widely been personified before (the closest we've gotten is Chicken Run all the way back in 2000), and a holiday other than Christmas or Halloween.

The casting of Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson in the lead roles is curious. Here are two actors with similar Texas twangs and personas. I have to confess that I misidentified Reggie's voice until Jake's introduction. While Wilson has done his share of voiceover work for the Cars universe and Marmaduke, Harrelson's only prior voice acting credits are a 1994 episode of "The Simpsons" (in which he voiced his "Cheers" bartender) and the English language version of the adult-oriented Norwegian comedy Free Jimmy. Neither actor does anything to elevate the average material, while a couple of chuckles are the product of Poehler's more apparent effort.

Discerning eyes will notice the animation isn't on par with most of the competition. Without doing a side-by-side comparison, I got the impression that Free Birds' visuals were akin to state-of-the-art sophistication as Pixar defined it in the late '90s. That's not an insurmountable shortcoming because story and characters always mean more than the images presenting them. On a film like this, though, where the storytelling leaves plenty to be desired, some pretty animation wouldn't have hurt. The human character designs are especially unsightly, reminding one of a decade-old computer game.

Less than stunning animation doesn't seem to have slowed the Despicable Me franchise at the box office. Free Birds, however, proved to be in an entirely different league than commercial behemoths like that, Frozen, and Monsters University, all of which grossed more in their wide opening weekends than Free Birds did altogether. Early this year, Free Birds passed the $55 million mark that matched its reported production budget. Obviously, the film still has a long way to go before profitability, with foreign markets being less than fully receptive to this American tale. The film's domestic gross still places it sixth among Relativity's 22 releases over the past three years. Nonetheless, Reel FX's next animated film, Book of Life, will be distributed by Fox this October.

Coincidentally, Fox handled this week's DVD and Blu-ray combo pack releases of Free Birds, as they do all of Relativity's theatrical output. (I doubt more than a brief thought was given to holding this release back until next Thanksgiving.) We look at the two-disc Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD UltraViolet set in this review. Despite 3D theatrical engagements, this is the movie's only Blu-ray edition to date, adding evidence to the growing case against Blu-ray 3D's retail viability.

Turkeys take over Mount Rushmore to promote Fox's Blu-ray and DVD release of "Free Birds." Jake dethrones Abraham Lincoln in Washington's Lincoln Monument to promote Fox's Blu-ray and DVD release of "Free Birds."

Free Birds: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD UltraViolet combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.85:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
DVD Movie Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: February 4, 2014
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (1 BD-50 & 1 DVD-9)
Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available as DVD ($29.98 SRP) and on Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

I've detailed above how Free Birds falls short of the animation industry's high and rising visual standards. Having said that, the Blu-ray cannot be faulted in any way. It treats the film to the customary direct digital transfer and the results are just as flawless as always. The vibrant, pristine 1.85:1 picture marks the film's best presentation for the foreseeable future and doesn't at all disappoint.

The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio warrants similar praise. Whether due to a tighter budget or just filmmaker preference, Free Birds avoids the pop tunes you'd expect, offering nothing more than an unlikely Social Distortion end credits cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Up Around the Bend." The sound is suitably immersive, engaging and crisp, giving those without hearing problems no reason to consult the English SDH and Spanish subtitles included.

Animators' videotaped antics become the basis of their animators, as shown in two bonus features. Dominic Lewis discusses his first movie score with Relativity Media president of music Bob Bowen.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray's all-HD extras begin with "Birds Flipping History" (1:27), a live-action short of a children's play recalling the first Thanksgiving as altered in the film.
It's unusual but nicely done.

"Animating Free Birds: The Main Course" (4:36), titled "Anatomy of a Scene for Free Birds" onscreen, has writer/director Jimmy Hayward take us through the creation and evolution of a sequence, from animatic to animators acting out the scene to layers of detail and animation to the finished product that plays in full. This is the closest to a general making-of featurette we get.

"Winging It: Animators in Action" (4:32) serves up more of the acting reference footage glimpsed at in the previous piece. We get additional clips of animators acting out bits from the movie with the film's soundtrack synchronized over them. One scene, the finished version of which is shown, and assorted snippets get this treatment. It seems like Reel FX relied more heavily on reference footage than most other animation studios.

"Talking Turkey with Composer Dominic Lewis" devotes 6 minutes and 23 seconds to the film's original score. Newcomer Lewis and head of Relativity Media president of music Bob Bowen discuss the specifics of the score, with looks at it in use and the orchestra recording it.

Reggie can't help but start dancing in the presence of Jake in "Shake a Tail Feather." Of all the possible turkey-themed taglines, the makers of "Free Birds" made the right decision to choose "Hang on to your nuggets", a phrase used in the film's trailer and poster.

Though called a music video on the case, "Shake a Tail Feather" is really just a 20-second commercial which finds Jake and Reggie
dancing to some unknown hip-hop song in front of their film's title in blinking lights.

The extras conclude with Free Birds' theatrical trailer (1:50), an always apt inclusion for the feature presentation.

Not stripped down to accommodate a digital copy (which is a download), the DVD is seemingly the same one sold separately. Still, it disappointingly only includes the most promotional extras: "Shake a Tail Feather" and the trailer, despite barely using the disc's second layer of data.

Both discs open with trailers for Rio 2, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, and Walking with Dinosaurs. Uncharacteristically, there's no menu access to any of these.

The menu places listings over screen-filling animation, with your selections prompting a remark from George Takei's character S.T.E.V.E. Unlike Fox's own Blu-rays, the Relativity ones they distribute unfortunately neither resume playback nor give you the chance to place bookmarks on the film.

Inside the slipcovered eco-friendly blue keepcase, a single-sided insert provides your redemption code and directions for accessing the Digital HD version of the film that's included with your purchase.

In "Free Birds", modern-day turkeys Reggie and Jake travel back in time to the first Thanksgiving.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Free Birds is watchable and fairly harmless, but never as much fun as you'd like it to be. Its story and tone are all over the place and, whether serious or slapsticky, there's a shortage of creativity. Still, it warrants a single viewing for animation fans, who could easily find a few 'toons worse than this last year.

Light on extras and even lighter on ones viewers might care for, the Blu-ray combo pack nonetheless suits the film fine with its feature presentation representing the best Free Birds will look and sound in 2D for the indefinite future.

Buy Free Birds from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD UltraViolet / DVD / Instant Video

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Reviewed February 6, 2014.



Text copyright 2014 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2013 Relativity Media, Reel FX Animation Studos, Reel FX Film Fund,
and 2014 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.