By Peter Hartlaub
San Francisco Chronicle
We've seen some audacious product placement in movies before: Joe Pesci ordering a Subway sandwich in "Lethal Weapon 2"; Tom Hanks giving AOL stock a boost in "You've Got Mail"; a 119-minute Google advertisement disguised as a feature film called "The Internship" ...
But movie audiences have never been sucker punched by the fist of embedded marketing with the force that we see at the end of "Free Birds." Warning: After a three paragraph grace period, this review will include a spoiler of the final scene of the movie. And this spoiler (the contents, not the revealed plot points) may ruin your day.
''Free Birds" is the kind of factory-churned animated movie that seems to be multiplying in recent years. It sounds fun and clever in theory, featuring a turkey named Reggie who is pardoned by the president, then travels back in time to thwart the first Thanksgiving meal, presumably saving his species from centuries of slaughter.
In execution, the film is all sidekicks and sight gags, with little story cohesion or purpose. Example: Most of "Free Birds" takes place after the first year the Pilgrims landed, but there's a turkey who sounds like the Taco Bell Chihuahua. Because why? Did Hollywood kid movie focus group guidelines deem that a fast-talking Latin-accented character must be included, regardless of whether it follows chronological or geographic logic?
But that's barely a blip on the horrendousness radar when considering the resolution of "Free Birds." Spoilers arrive in 3 ... 2 ... 1 ...
The first Thanksgiving meal is saved, the pilgrims are spared from starvation and peace is achieved between Native Americans and the settlers. All because a delivery boy from the future arrives bearing boxes of Chuck E. Cheese's pizza.
That is what we're supposed to accept as a happy ending in "Free Birds": Chuck E. Cheese saves America. And following the movie's logic, every Thanksgiving dinner in the nearly 400 years since has been a turkey-free atrocity consisting of a feast of cardboard-tasting pizza. Cue the uplifting music. End credits.
The rage might have been tempered a little if the delivery boy also brought Skee-ball, a Ms. Pac-Man machine and an animatronic band of vermin programmed ironically to sing Arcade Fire songs. But no. Just the pizza. One of the more pivotal meals in human history, rewritten to include one of the worst foods. Great job, Reel FX Animation. Looking forward to a cartoon reworking of The Last Supper, with catering from the Olive Garden. (Make sure Jesus samples the Crispy Risotto Bites.)
Beyond this hideousness, "Free Birds" is a forgettably mediocre family film. It skews darker than necessary, with the pilgrims alternately portrayed as pointlessly savage or vulnerable depending on the plot's needs.
The writers do contribute some clever moments in the beginning, and director Jimmy Hayward rewards short attention spans with a brisk pace. While this film may be spoiled from serious cultural consideration by the unfortunate product placement, it's definitely not the Chuck E. Cheese of animated family films.
''Enough with Chuck E. Cheese bashing, snob," you say. "It's just a kid's movie!"
Fine. Then you should do this: Instead of that deep fried turkey, mashed potatoes, delicious canned cranberry cylinder and Aunt Alice's homemade stuffing, surprise your family on Nov. 25 with some Chuck E. Cheese pizza and a handful of tokens. Now does it seem like just a kid's movie?
Freedom ain't "Free Birds."
Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle's pop culture critic.