Sunday, November 10, 2013

Free Birds, reviewed by evangelicals

Feeling down after reading the “Twelve Reasons” post, I was relieved to stumble on this review of the new movie Free Birds by the Christian outfit MOVIEGUIDE.

I have no problem with sociopolitical film reviews as such (in fact, I’m quite fond of them). But what’s funny about MG’s is how earnestly literal they are. Movies shouldn’t be “the ax for the frozen sea within us,” encouraging compassion, moral questioning, and awareness of other perspectives. They're seen as purely didactic, and their messages either promote conservative Christian dogma or subvert it. So MG tots up the “Christian” elements, swearwords, and sexual acts to determine how well a movie performs as a celluloid sermon or, on the other hand, pollutes vulnerable minds.

Here’s their summary of Free Birds:
Light mixed pagan worldview with strong revisionist history regarding the pilgrims mixed with some biblical virtues that include sacrifice, hard work, the importance of standing for something bigger than oneself, and making peace, one pilgrim also says, “Thank God,” the turkeys perform a symbolic ritual over their dead chief where some loose leaves swarm together into the air, as if his soul is ascending heaven, there’s also a reference to “the great turkey” which in the end turns out isn’t a divine being, evolution is briefly suggested; no foul language but “shut up,” “buttocks,” and “son of a gun” are said; some light slapstick animated violence, such as the pilgrims try to shoot the turkeys, and they send their dogs on them, and there’s a tense scene that includes fire; no sexual content, but a light kiss between turkeys; no nudity; no alcohol use; no smoking or drug use; and, one character acts selfishly, but learns his lesson in the end.
I think it was the “light kiss between turkeys” that got me. (Could have been “mixed pagan worldview,” or the mention of a suggestive reference to evolution alongside “foul language,”* sex, drugs, and violence.**)

The very idea that turkeys might have a point of view, from which humans – Americans! – look like terrifying killers is anathema:
One of the main issues with FREE BIRDS is regarding its revisionist view of history. Though the movie does begin with a comical disclaimer stating its fictionalized version of the actual events, it still may confuse young children. The very fact that the movie sets up the pilgrims as the villains is not only wildly outlandish, but also disrespectful. To make mockery of the men, women, and children who starved, suffered and died to build this country shows poor taste in MOVIEGUIDE®’s opinion. The movie doesn’t portray all the pilgrims as evil, only the hunters, but the rest are only shown as spineless sheep who bend to the evil hunters’ every command. Though it’s likely the filmmakers only intention was to entertain children with a admittedly clever plot, it should never be at the expense of damaging a child’s education or perception of America’s heroes.
But here’s the part I liked best:
Also, for a movie about Thanksgiving Day, FREE BIRDS fails at conveying a message of thankfulness. Instead of being thankful for what we have and for what God has provided for us and our country past and present,*** the children seeing this movie might demand a vegetarian replacement of the traditional turkey meal. FREE BIRDS had many opportunities to teach positive lessons of gratitude, but it never did.
For primarily this reason, Free Birds “merits a caution for susceptible children” – those whose capacity to care about the suffering and deaths of others hasn’t been entirely deadened. The film is dangerous, in other words, in that children might be led to question the bogus Christian justifications for killing our fellow animals, see them sympathetically, and wish not to eat them. They might be inspired to act as moral agents who want to avoid causing suffering. How un-Christian.

I haven’t seen the movie, but I’m almost tempted to recommend it on the basis of this possibility alone. So much of our culture is dedicated to indoctrinating people to subdue or ignore their sympathy with other animals and to rationalize exploitation and killing. A work that has the potential to activate sympathy and encourage children to stand up for those who suffer and are killed has to have something worthwhile about it.

* I’ll resist the obvious pun.

** Calling the humans’ attempts to kill the birds “light slapstick…violence” is pretty much what I’d expect, as was the inability to appreciate any other violence (which appears in the trailer itself).

*** Incidentally, MOVIEGUIDE also awards the Kairos Prize for Spiritually Uplifting Screenplays (“The primary purpose of the prize is to further the influence of moral and spiritual values within the film and television industries. Seeking to promote a spiritually uplifting, redemptive worldview, the Kairos Prize was founded to inspire first-time and beginning screenwriters to produce compelling, entertaining, spiritually uplifting scripts that result in a greater increase in either man’s love or understanding of God”); the Epiphany Prizes for Inspiring Movies & TV (“for those popular, entertaining movies and television programs which are wholesome, uplifting, inspirational, redemptive, and moral…to encourage filmmakers and television producers to create movies and television shows that help increase man’s understanding and love of God”); and the Chronos Prizes for Inspiring Screenplays by Established Filmmakers (“designed to help established filmmakers who have made successful faith-friendly and faith-based movies and television programs and screenplays. It intends to reward successful established filmmakers who endeavor to create stories that are compelling, entertaining, inspiring, spiritually uplifting, and increase man’s love or understanding of God”).

These awards are all funded by the Templeton Foundation, who also think gratitude should be instilled in the masses, along with other important character traits.

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