For parents of small children with long weekends to fill, time is measured not only in weeks and months and seasons but in the endless epochs during which a single children’s animated movie rules local theaters. This fall has been the Era of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2; that animated film was released Sept. 27, and has finished in the top 5 in the box-office race every weekend since then.
But there was nothing else. So those of us whose children have seen Cloudy 2 have been biding our time waiting for the next thing we can entertain our children with for two hours on a windy autumn Saturday. That next thing arrives today, in the form of Free Birds, a Thanksgiving-themed animated feature from the director of Horton Hears a Who.
But I simply cannot imagine one parent in America watching the trailer for Free Birds and thinking: Yes! That movie is for me. For I, a parent, really, really want to completely wreck Thanksgiving.
Free Birds is a movie about two turkeys who travel back in time to 1621 in order to convince the Pilgrims that turkey should not be on their Thanksgiving menu. By doing so, they hope to avert the mass slaughter of millions of future turkeys at scores of future Thanksgivings. As a parent trying to raise ethical children, I am of two minds on this movie.
Part of me knows that even though I am not a vegetarian, there are way more great reasons to be a vegetarian than there are to be a meat-eater. That is to say, I wish I was a vegetarian, but I lack the self-discipline. It’s certainly better for you, and it solves the ethical dilemmas eating meat poses. If my children chose to be vegetarians, I would be proud of them, even though I would have to give them a serious talking-to about how vegetarians need to eat the occasional vegetable. So I don’t mind the idea of my kids watching a movie whose message, like that of Chicken Run, is that the things they eat have lives and dignity, and maybe you should consider eating plants instead.
But there’s another, darker part of me that can only think of how much I do not want Thanksgiving to culminate in my children’s realization that I am serving them the hero of the movie they just watched—a movie that is about that hero’s quest to stop his species from being killed and eaten by humans. Nor do I want Thanksgiving dinner to be a litany of tears as my children watch their parents slice up lovable Reggie (voice of Owen Wilson) with an electric carving knife, place his flesh upon a platter, and devour it with gravy and stuffing. Chicken Run neatly sidesteps the issue of chicken-eating, implying that it’s simply these adorable British chickens, full of pluck, who deserve to be spared Mrs. Tweedy’s awful industrial-processing plans. Free Birds offers no such loophole, I fear. It is literally about two turkeys trying to avoid a future turkey holocaust at the hands of humans.
Now, I love Thanksgiving! But there are a lot of people to please and a lot of food to cook, and two loudly protesting children do not easily fit into that. Should I take them to Free Birds, I fear my older daughter is likely to steal the turkey and throw it into the woods, and her sister will sit bravely at the table, sad tears streaming down her face as she forces herself to eat a single bite of poor Reggie. I’ll be forced to face my own hypocrisy, which is no one’s idea of a fun Thanksgiving. It’s already tough enough to explain why we watch enormous men give each other concussions on the TV!
It’s remarkable that Free Birds ever got made at all. Admirable, in its way. Let’s say someone pitched an animated children’s movie released during the Christmas season which was all about the impoverished sweatshop workers who make those toys Santa delivers on Christmas Eve. Two lovable sweatshop employees travel back in time to upend the Industrial Revolution, in hopes that future Christmases might feature only handcrafted, artisanal gifts. I feel like a Hollywood exec, thinking ahead to his son’s face when he opens his iPad on Christmas morning, might blanch at greenlighting such a film. Yet here is Free Birds, flapping into theaters to suggest that your Thanksgiving centerpiece might once have been Woody Harrelson.
Now Free Birds, a film that certainly wants your money, may well finesse the issue in some clever or canny way. (Early reviews suggest the film comes down on the side of ordering from restaurants, especially Chuck E. Cheese, for Thanksgiving, which, come on.) But I am out. Forget it, Hollywood. Make a children’s movie extolling vegetarianism in May, featuring cows, or in August, packed with a cast of adorable Pacific salmon. Heck, make Chicken Run 2: Attack on Tweedy’s Farm. But don’t blow up our Thanksgiving. It’s complicated enough as it is.