As I gather ’round the table this this year with my newfound family and friends to feast upon a well seasoned turkey carcass, I will give thanks. I will give thanks for having such an amazing and supportive family. I will give thanks for my health. I will give thanks that (despite what my family has long claimed) I am not actually a Native American – still fighting to keep American greed from destroying everything sacred to my culture. Finally, and this is the most important part of all, I will give thanks for hilarious turkey themed bad movie nights!
To prep for this year’s Thanksgiving, rather than cooking, I decided to watch two wildly different movies. One targeted towards children, the other, most definitely not. Yet both feature talking turkeys. Both feature animation, pilgrims and seemingly happy natives, and ridiculous “over stuffed” premises. This was, by far, the most fun Bad Movie Night I’ve ever had, and for that I am truly grateful. But what made these “bad movies” so fun?
If I had to say, the creative teams behind both of these movies must have had epiphany somewhere down the line while in production. That epiphany being, “This is a stupid idea… fuck it! I’m gonna do whatever I want!”
And so they did.
They did whatever they wanted, whether it made sense or not. Whether it was funny or not. Whether it was clever or predictable or not. As a result, some special people put their drinks down, took two or three more puffs of whatever they’d been smoking and created these wonderfully ludicrous movies.
This plucky 2013 Thanksgiving tale from Relativity Media, touts a star studded cast, including Owen Wilson as Reggie, a “smarter than your average” turkey who, through a stroke of fate, becomes the president’s pardoned turkey, and Woody Harrelson as Jake. The empty headed but noble turkey who drags him on a fantastic mission to change history. This unlikely pair hitch a ride on a time machine and end up a few days before the first Thanksgiving, where they meet a tribe of free birds, hiding from the hungry pilgrims. Unlike the modern turkeys Reggie is used to, the free birds are smart, organized, and Reggie feels that he belongs. Especially when he meets the chief’s daughter Jenny. Together, Reggie, Jake, and the rest of the free birds fight for their lives against the increasingly incensed hunter, Myles Standish, so that they and future generations of turkeys can stay off the Thanksgiving dinner menu for good.
Now, when I read this movie premise, I thought it was dumb. Still, it seemed like an entertaining enough plot for a kids movie. I pictured Chicken Run with turkeys and time travel. Fair enough. I popped the movie in and prepared myself for kid friendly wackiness to ensue. I chuckled. Then I had a good laugh. Then another good few good laughs. Then I felt uncomfortable. Then I felt confused. A few more chuckles. Some confused chuckles. Boredom. Boredom. Boredom. Groan. Bored. And then, in a confused whimper, the movie ended. As the credits rolled, I was left feeling confused. What did I just watch? It started off so well! What happened? Was this a kids movie? What the hell did I just watch?!
I think to brush off the issues with this movie with the excuse that it’s a “kids movie” is to commit a great disservice to some of the amazing, thoughtful, and fun kids movies out there. Beauty and the Beast was a kids movie. Finding Nemo was a kids movie. Zootopia is a kids movie. This was a disappointment. Mainly because, despite what many critics felt, I actually thought it started off pretty well and showed a lot of promise initially.
First the good.
Free Birds is colorful, exaggerated, and has a fun tone despite it’s questionable content. The cartoonish art style lends itself well to the cartoonish nature of the story’s premise. There are a few stand out characters, such as Jake, S.T.E.V.E, and the the yellow clad workers under Camp David who chase Reggie and Jake around at the start of their adventure. The movie also attempts to fit in themes of belonging and against both animal cruelty and Native American genocide. These themes are a bit “half baked” and not carried out very well but I will get to that when I talk about the negatives. For now, I’d just point out that I appreciated the attempt.
There were a number of moments where I genuinely laughed. The initial introduction of the farm turkeys, revealing how dumb they are, made me laugh, as did the introduction of Jake, a few of the jokes from the president’s daughter (“that’s the girl who likes my dad – but that’s a secret”) and the entire sequence when Reggie and Jake were evading the men in the yellow protection suits. There were a lot of quips and smart humor that would easily entertain kids but also engage older audiences as well. While watching these moments, I wondered why this movie received such hate from critics.
The cons, I learned, were many and became more obvious the longer I watched.
Despite it’s color and wacky premise, Free Birds is formulaic, uninspired, and repetitive. The main character, Reggie, isn’t particularly likable yet the other characters like him for some reason. He is never questioned or taken to task for his own shortcomings and his turnaround towards the end seems completely out of left field. I also found myself wondering on a number of occasions whether this movie was suitable for the age demographic it was geared towards. There are more than a few scenes that seemed a bit too dark for kids, even as they were treated with humor. For example, the very beginning of the movie saw two turkeys being carried by the neck to a barn house. Now while the audience is meant to find humor in the fact that these two dreamy eyed birds are happily imagining “Turkey Paradise”, the reality is still very apparent that these animals are about to be slaughtered. This felt particularly dark since I happened to see Sausage Party not long ago – a movie that fully embraced the dark humor that this movie skates around. This is also true when looking at the hungry Pilgrims who are, when you first meet them, literally starving to death and relying on this dinner with the Natives to be their salvation. But these two examples pale in comparison to Jake’s backstory, where you see that he was raised in a factory setting and hidden from view in the hopes of escaping with a few precious eggs. The imagery is dark, sad, and hopeless but is not given the gravity it deserves. It is treated with an attempt at humor and quickly forgotten, much like many plot elements in this movie.
We never address what made Reggie different from the other turkeys in the first place, and we never address whether or not Jake’s family (or any of the other turkeys from Reggie’s farm which are presumed dead) have been spared because of their actions. These, as well as a slew of other plot points, are presented but never followed through to completion in favor of other things that fit more into the “kid movie, must haves” like romance, funny side characters, and a big final battle of some kind.
Free Birds suffers from relying too heavily on an established movie formula. You have the main character that thinks differently from the rest and is ostracized. You have the big, lovable idiot, the romantic interest, and a slew of side characters including a darkly clad hunter for a villain. You learn that Jake has been sent on this mission by ‘The Great Turkey” who the audience will know is Reggie from the future before they can even finish saying “The Great Turkey”. The main character falls for the princess, they attempt to fight, they fail, it backfires, all seems lost, but in the end they come back and the main character saves the day. Happiness all around. The End.
Now there is nothing wrong with following a blueprint. Many of the movies I mentioned earlier follow the same formula, however, they do not feel formulaic, they feel natural. Free Birds is stuffed with so many plot points, side characters, and competing themes that following the formula becomes noticeably out of place. There is little natural progression of the romance between Reggie and the chief’s daughter, Jenny. Why would a skilled princess fall in love with a weak, seemingly delusional guy like Reggie while her family is running for their lives? Unlike in modern times, his level of intellect is not a rarity during her time period, so there is very little going for him. Why then, does she fall for him? Because the plot says so. Why does she open up to him so quickly and willingly? Because they don’t have the time to flesh it out, they still have to deal with starving pilgrims, an evil turkey hunter, Reggie’s redemption arc, Jake’s redemption arc, and a time machine on standby.
Yet despite being limited on time, the movie does take the time to repeat every joke until it’s been beaten to death. I mentioned earlier that I laughed at the initial introductions of the turkeys and of Jake. They are typical dumb turkeys and their lack of aptitude make Reggie stand out. However, this fact gets beaten in to your head with a mallet until you no longer find the “dumb turkey” jokes funny. This is not an isolated incident either. Every fun aspect that they introduce in this movie, from Jenny’s lazy eye, to George Takai’s “S.T.E.V.E” is played up for comedic effect so often that it soon becomes cringeworthy. It’s as though they had no faith that the story would be compelling enough so they just threw in another joke to distract you and hoped it would stick.
As the movie wrapped up, I was bored and ready for it to be over. If there was any lingering curiosity in me, it was wondering how they would address the starving people while allowing the turkeys to escape harm. I also wondered whether any of these plot points they brought up would be addressed, such as the main bad guy seeing the time machine, whether the president would make any attempt to get the time machine back, or whether changing the future brought back the original families of Reggie and Jake. The bad guy was dispatched rather unceremoniously, they feed the pilgrims and natives pizzas from the future for their Thanksgiving feast, and Reggie decides to stay with Jenny in the past while Jake traverses time. When it was over, I turned off the movie and had already forgotten most of it.
The problem with movies like Free Birds is that they try to be clever. They make up for a lack of substance with big name celebrity voices, and dumbed down jokes. The story is original and fun but I’m sure that somewhere during production people realized that this Turkey of a movie couldn’t fly. So the actors, producers, director, and editors eventually decided to say “fuck it”. This whole movie felt like some kind of inside joke that was meant more for the adults who made it than the kids who were meant to watch it.
But then there are movies like Thankskilling. This low budget horror spoof is dumb for dumb’s sake. It purposely takes the basics of filmmaking and does them incorrectly to comedic effect. The acting is terrible. The lighting is terrible. The dialogue is stilted. The plot is ludicrous. The effects are cheap and inconsistent. The result is a movie so horrifically bad yet self aware, it’s amazing! Where Free Birds probably had the “fuck it” moment somewhere during production, a movie like Thankskilling had that moment much much earlier. Probably before the script was even written. That is the defining difference. A big budget movie like Free Birds meant that people had to have cared to create a good movie at some point. Thankskilling, on the other hand, was never intended to be anything more than a guilty pleasure, D movie.
Created on a shoe string budget, Thankskilling tells the story of a group of college students who go home for Thanksgiving break. But their holiday plans are ruined when a vengeful, immortal turkey singles them out for his killing spree. With the most notable name to the film being a porn star with no lines, this movie relies heavily on shock value, raunchy humor, and over the top “bad movie” cliche’s to make it stand out. The movie follows the typical horror movie formula to a T. It’s college coeds are a typical “good girl”, “airheaded bimbo”, “jock”, “funny guy” and “geek”. Like the movie I watched before it, Thankskilling also sets up subplots that it swiftly tosses aside and never addresses again, such as Johnny’s football, why his father is so obsessed with it, or Kristen’s plan to join her father at the policeman’s dinner. The curse that allows the turkey to rise every 505 years is vague and plays no substantial role other than to kind of explain why a turkey would try to kill people in the first place. It is brought up, referenced once, and then skated around for the rest of the film. However, this is intentional. These subplots were written in specifically because they would never be mentioned again. In horror films such as these, the focus is on the outrageous gore, not the backstory.
To harp too much on what was wrong with this movie seems a bit silly. This movie was intentionally bad, that’s what made it funny. However, if I did have any legitimate criticism of the film, I would say that, even at a total run time of 70 minutes, the movie still felt about 10 minutes too long. One can only laugh at mindless stupidity for so long before it becomes exhausting and the movies propensity to linger on it’s own bad jokes lessened the desired effect. For example, the killer Turkey does not kill any of the co-eds until about half way through the film. In that time, he has killed a dog, a motorist, and one of the co-eds parents but when he finally kills one of the main characters it is a gratuitous sex scene (without any nudity, mind you) where the turkey kills the boy she’s have sex with, then has sex with her himself before snapping her neck. This is followed by her friends discovering what happened to her after Jason emerges holding a wet, sticky feather and an extra small gravy flavored condom. This sequence was not one of my favorites. I didn’t find it particularly funny and the reveal of the gravy flavored condom just seemed to be the filmmakers high fiving each other.
By the time the movie ended, I was glad I’d seen it but ready for it to be over. It felt longer than it was and had become tedious to watch.
There is something to be said about bad movies. While writing these blogs, I’ve watched quite a few. Some I’ve written very spirited reviews of, others, were so bland, it was hard to write anything. It was easy to write these reviews. I genuinely enjoyed watching both of these movies despite the fact that they were both crap. They were crap in different ways. One on purpose and funny. The other unintentional and a little sad. But both made my night more interesting, no booze required.
And for that, I am very thankful.