Sunday, November 3, 2013

"Free Birds" Doesn't Fly

Reel FX's foray into the world of feature animation opened rather softly… But it is in good shape...

With an unremarkable marketing campaign behind it, Free Birds had a hard time appealing to audiences. It looked too cutesy and inconsequential for adults; others balked at the plot, fearing that it was vegetarian and/or liberal propaganda. (This happens to animation quite a lot, doesn't it?) It grossed a pretty weak $16 million over the weekend, but since it has most of November to itself until Frozen hits theaters, it should grow some legs and make like other animated films that opened with around the same amount.

Fortunately for Reel FX, Free Birds only cost $35 million to make. I admire the studio's strategy, because the animation in the film does look pretty good for something made with that amount of money. Unfortunately, the film was panned by critics and received a particularly toxic 21% on Rotten Tomatoes. But that doesn't matter, because Reel FX shows that they have good talent there and their next slate of films will be a bit more on the experimental side.

From day one, I figured that they would do something like Free Birds first. It was pretty safe, it was marketable, it had enough cutesy characters and wacky humor to satisfy kids and possibly their parents. It looked like your typical animated film from the previous trailer, but now that it's out of the way, they can move on to more ambitious stuff. I mean, you can't tell me that The Book of Life doesn't at least sound interesting. Stylistically and story-wise, it's a real 180 from this film and we haven't even seen any footage yet. It doesn't sound like something many of the big studios are thinking of making, like I said a few months back, it seems more in line with Rango than anything. Beasts and Burden happens to be based on a graphic novel that isn't really family-friendly, so you can't say that they don't have any ambitions.

If somebody else like Illumination took on The Book of Life, it would be a pretty big risk given the fact that they spend more on their features. But since Reel FX isn't doing that, a project like that is perfectly suited for them. Like I said, we need more small studios experimenting because with a lower budget, they have something of a safety net if things do not go over too well. LAIKA's Coraline made a decent amount, but it didn't have a huge marketing campaign behind it. Not too many major tie-ins and whatnot. Meanwhile, a studio like Illumination has outlets like IHOP and McDonald's to please in addition to doubling the production budget. This film really only had promotional tie-ins with Chuck E. Cheese's of all things. (After all, Reel FX created the current version of Chuck E. Cheese himself.)

So a sort of lower budget, not too hyped up animated film is ideal in today's animation world - especially with some films from the big guns underperforming. We need more studios like Reel FX making these kinds of films, it's good for the industry, it gets animators jobs and it can blossom some game-changing stuff. LAIKA already succeeded, Rango was the rare case where something experimental was big budget, released by a major distributor and backed with a big marketing campaign. Free Birds is apparently not an earth-shattering film that will change mainstream animation as we know it, but The Book of Life sounds like it could definitely be. Ditto Beasts of Burden and W.I.S.H. Police. Like I said, they got the safe, market-friendly film out of the way so they can tackle the riskier stuff.

I wouldn't be surprised if The Book of Life brings about some big changes for mainstream animation. In the mean time, Free Birds ought to make a tidy profit before Frozen comes crashing in. I have not seen the film so I can't say whether the critics are right or if it's actually decent, but it should be a success. Thus, we can get the real goods from this growing studio.


  1. You're gonna disagree with me on this one, but I (unfortunately) was one of those people who thought it was pretty propagandistic. However, I do hope that The Book of Life (their next movie) is a better offering. Free Birds was definitely not a good way for Reel FX to make their animated feature production debut. There was also some product placement from Chuck E. Cheese's, which I thought was pretty odd.

  2. To be fair, I was also in the same boat many months back. When I first read up on the plot, the first thing I thought was, "90-minute PETA ad". My skepticism ended when I came across that interview with the director. But who would know that it was meant to be all in good fun outside of the animation world?

    1. I have to admit, I actually saw the movie this past Sunday, and thought it was so bad that I had to leave halfway through the film with a full refund.

  3. Interesting fact turkeys were not served at the "First" thanksgiving.

  4. It wasn't the worst animated movie but I just thought it had so many great ideas that just went to waste if this was Pixar I think there would be more well-handled.