If you don’t want to know the story, this has spoilers. You have been warned.
I recently rented the DVD of the animated movie Free Birds which depicts the adventures of a turkey who is first rejected from his flock and then becomes a hero for all turkeys.
The premise is good. The movie starts by showing the fate of so many turkeys for Thanksgiving and other holidays but I quickly started noticing some typical Speciesist undertones.
When we first meet Reggie, he lives in what appears to be the stereotype Old MacDonald Farm where turkeys live very well. It’s a far cry from the modern system of factory farms (or any farm). A few minutes into the movie, Reggie starts calling his fellow turkeys « dumb » because they don’t know they will become food. Turkeys are in fact, as are all animals, smart animals. Just because they may not realize they might become food for Thanksgiving doesn’t mean they don’t know they will die. In fact all animals feel and fear death. Calling them « dumb » was to me insulting.
Reggie is saved by the stupidest of ceremony: the Presidential « pardon ». I never could understand why we needed to « pardon » turkeys. Did they commit a crime? Have they tortured humans and killed them for their flesh? It is probably the most insulting of all ceremonies. Would turkeys « pardon » humans for butchering them? Somehow, if they could voice their pain, I doubt they would.
Reggie is then hired by Jake who claims to be from the Turkey Freedom Front. I got hopeful at that point until it sounded like a « mission from God ». Let’s make turkeys more human by giving them what appears to be a deity (which is in this case a sacred door knob given by « The Great Turkey »… go figure). Jake and Reggie then embark on a time machine to go back in time to the first Thanksgiving and get turkeys off the menu forever. At last, a good message… with only one glitch. According to some historians, turkeys were an uncommon part of Thanksgiving dinner until after the 1800s. But let’s not be picky and let’s allow Reggie and Jake to change history anyway.
Unfortunately, turkeys continue to be depicted as stupid. When Reggie tries to escape from Jake (whom he thinks « weird »), he finds humans and tries to ask their help. The humans scan him and we see the words « unintelligent life form » above his head. On a bright side, humans are depicted as very dumb as well. When Reggie and Jake are discovered roaming to get to the time machine, the humans ask how to address the situation. One of them responds: « With cranberries Sir ».
Fortunately, there are some bright moments. The time travel experience of Reggie and Jake is in fact fun to watch. Interestingly enough, they get hunted down by a white colonist as soon as they arrive in 1621 Plymouth but get rescued by « Indian » turkeys who outsmart the white colonists (Indian as a clear symbol for those oppressed by white people).
Another frustrating moment of the story is the arrival of Reggie and Jake at, that is the good part, a community of free turkeys. But Reggie’s love interest Jenny says that turkeys have to be active or they would become dumb. Here is that human centric point of view again. Not being an active member of the « society » means you’re dumb (that applies to humans too obviously, the parallel is there).
But there are some plus moments. When they visit the nursery, they learn from the chief that turkeys don’t fight, they « protect and defend » and are therefore a peaceful species unlike humans. The nursery scene is in fact rather cute, with baby turkeys being born.
Another favorite moment is when Jenny says that she had hoped « All beings would live in harmony in the future ».
One disturbing moment is Jake commenting to Reggie that, unlike him, he didn’t grow up on a nice « free range » farm. He grew up on a factory farm. There is, for the first time in the movie, an attempt at showing what the real life of turkeys on farms is today with images of Jake’s life in one of them. But, being a movie directed at young people, it is still a very « clean » look at farms, it doesn’t really show the horrors of it. A major failure of this well-meaning sequence is making people believe that « free range » is an ideal alternative (the Old MacDonald style farm Reggie is seen living on a the beginning of the movie). We know this is a myth. Free Range and Factory Farms have only minor differences. In both cases, animals are still tortured and exploited the same way and they all end up killed.
On a positive side, I really cared for the turkey flock during the movie, particularly when they are attacked by a group of vicious humans who want to turn them into dinner. This is probably the only moment of the movie when I feel that young people who are watching may re-think the idea of eating them by seeing them as individuals. I am hoping that this mainstream animated movie, despite its shortcomings, will wake up young minds to the idea that other beings are not food. It is even more powerful when Reggie and Jenny run back to save the nursery and Jake is the one appearing with the babies on his shoulders and eggs in his arms. This should have everyone, youngsters and adults alike, root for the turkeys. The saddest moment of the story is Jenny’s dad sacrificing himself for all of them and seeing a number of the turkeys being put into cages by the humans. This is then followed by a beautiful ceremony mourning the disappeared with feathers being projected by the others’ wings in the sky. Truly a moving moment.
The authors of the movie have attempted to present a story in favor of turkeys but failed in various ways. Their premise is good but does hardly represent the reality of turkey’s lives, treats them as stupid animals and misrepresents the reality of conditions on modern farms. Except for the touching scenes above and despite the two protagonist’s attempt to save turkeys from Thanksgiving, this is clearly a clever plot to amuse people but not meant to make them seriously look at their own Speciesism and the idea that not eating other animals is a serious moral issue.
After the death of her father, Jenny becomes chief of the flock and decides with the tribe/flock to rise and fight for their rights to be free in true Indian style. The Great Turkey turns out to be Reggie who had been going to Jake’s past to get him to find him in the future. Yes it gets confusing. But that is when Jake gets on his mission to save all turkeys.
The turkeys get saved by Reggie but here comes the big disappointment of the movie when mainstream product placements meet Speciesism. Indian humans join with their white counterparts and the turkeys at the first Thanksgiving… in front of Chuck E. Cheese pizzas (to which anchovies are added later as well!). Clearly the turkeys won’t be eaten for Thanksgiving anymore but make sure they get their corporate pizzas full of cow’s milk cheese instead. What a disappointment! In the end, sadly, corporate interests win the day and the turkeys go along with it.
Owen Wilson (Reggie), Woody Harrelson (Jake) and Amy Poehler (Jenny) gave their voice to the three main protagonists. The voice of the time machine S.T.E.V.E is done by George Takei (Mr. Sulu of Star Trek) and one of the humans is voiced by Colm Meaney (Chief O’Brien of Star Trek The Next Generation and Star Trek Deep Space Nine). The animation is beautiful and the story entertaining.
For a mainstream movie, there are some good points but it still misses the whole picture that animals and their secretions are not food. But I still would recommend it for non-vegan young viewers as a good start on their animal rights journey.
Bonus point: Jake comes back from the future during the credits with a chicken and a duck. The next fight is on! That’s the note of hope.
The DVD is available to rent through Netflix.
History of Thanksgiving dinner http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thanksgiving_dinner
Cow on Death Row (video): http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=81b_1352141800 – clearly shows that this cow knows she is going to die. Very sad and difficult video to watch.
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