I had the pleasure recently of attending two 3-D movies on the same day, with about an hour and a half between them to digest the first before becoming absorbed in the second.  Both were commendable, but entirely different in practically every way imaginable, dramatically illustrating the huge palette of writing and production tools available to the modern 3-D movie-maker for story-telling.

FREE BIRDS:” The first was a delightfully tongue-in-cheek animated 3-D romp, “Free Birds.” At the very beginning, the easily-recognizable voice of George Takei (“Mr. Sulu” of the original “Star Trek” TV Series) sets the stage with a verbal introduction, containing the statement that “…while the history portrayed [in the movie] may not be exactly accurate, — the talking Turkeys are absolutely real!”  In keeping with this absurdity, the silliness begins with a smart young turkey, Reggie, who finds out that turkeys are not being raised by benign humans to make life a paradise for them, but that the purpose is more disastrously culinary.  What happens as a result of his attempt to warn his fellow turkeys begins a series of completely preposterous events, which are correspondingly worthy of chuckles and smiles.

After becoming separated from everything he knows, Reggie unwillingly becomes involved with a nutty turkey “Jake,” who appears to be dedicated to the elimination of turkeys from human dining tables, inspired by a fanatical vision of “The Great Turkey.”   This zany association leads to a trip through time into the past to undo the use of turkeys for food at the first – and therefore precedent setting – Thanksgiving meal by the Pilgrims.  The action is just fast moving enough to sustain the humor without making the relationships and surprise-laden plot too difficult to follow.  And relationships, varied personalities, and colorful happenings there are aplenty, rife with the skilled touches of satire applied by the talented staff of writers and story-boarders responsible for the continuous fun throughout.  Any screenplay that makes a villain out of Pilgrim Myles Standish can’t be all bad!

Several scenes are humorous standouts; one of the funniest is the confrontation between the two most macho turkeys in the story (Jake and an “Indian” turkey), during which they try to outdo each other by exhibiting all the spectacular (and ridiculous!) physical puffery that male turkeys show off during the mating season. It takes Jenny, a sensible and attractive female turkey, to put a peaceable stop to it.  And plot complications?  How about the scene in which Reggie is duplicated in a climactic time travel mix-up?
Surprisingly, though, the film is not all fluff.  There is a solemn scene in which the tribe of wild turkeys hold a memorial service honoring the self-sacrifice of a revered leader.  The ceremony is handled with taste, dignity, and an imaginative symbolism that I found deeply moving.  But the film does not make the mistake occasionally made by “comedy” films which, somewhere in the middle, turn serious and stop being comic. “Free Birds” doesn’t forget that it is a comedy, and after the serious moment returns to the task of amusing us with one satirical absurdity piled on another right up to the end.

“Free Birds” Bottom line:  The well-paced kind of humor in “Free Birds” is on a par with the Nick Park/Peter Lord “Chicken Run,” (Aardman Productions), which benefited from a script by Karey Kirkpatrick. If you enjoyed “Chicken Run,” you probably will enjoy “Free Birds.”  This may not have as many “laugh-out-loud” moments as, say, “Despicable Me 2,” but it is so hugely ridiculous throughout that I guarantee you will leave the theater with a broad smile on your face.  I hope we will be seeing more from this team of Director/Writer Jimmy Hayward, Writer Scott Mosier, and production company Reel FX.  The 3-D was the usual very good animation 3-D, but with the also usual disappointing timidity in the use of negative space.  Accordingly, I would recommend the 3-D version as probably having enough depth eye-candy to make it worth while over the 2-D version, but don’t expect a 3-D masterpiece.  Be satisfied that you are seeing an enormously funny movie in acceptably good 3-D.

GRAVITY:”  And now, as they say, for something completely different. “Gravity,” instead of being a fast-moving comedy plot involving numerous characters, is a thoughtful and suspenseful character study featuring only two people throughout, peppered with spectacular special effects that occasionally benefit from being in 3-D.  The mature performance by Sandra Bullock, as astronaut Ryan Stone, captures our empathy for her increasingly difficult situation as she battles along side of co-astronaut, Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney) to survive a horrendous space disaster.  Kudos for the CGI experts who created the convincing visuals we watch in 3-D, especially while the International Space Station is shredded in eerie (but technically correct!) silence.  In all, the space scenes surround us in an environment few of us will ever have a chance to experience, and the 3-D thrill of these scenes is visceral, enhancing the enormity of  Ryan and Matt’s isolation from Earth and safety.

There have been some insensitive on-line reviews I have seen that dub the movie as “boring,” but I cannot imagine how anyone, other than a young child, caught up in the life-threatening situations faced by Ryan Stone could find her story anything but suspenseful.  A hallucination scene is psychologically fascinating and well handled, and Bullock’s performance, as she portrays the mental stress of Ryan’s difficult decisions and confrontation with the probability of death, is worthy of the Academy Award nomination suggested by other reviewers.

“Gravity” bottom line:  See this movie in 3-D, even though it suffers from the almost paranoid determination by Hollywood film makers to avoid using negative space for close-ups and intimate environments. (In contrast, see the Exposition Park Science Center IMAX 3-D productions of “Hubble” and “Fight of the Butterflies,” both of which use intimate negative space 3-D close-ups.)  In “Gravity,” the 3-D does add to the feeling of intimacy somewhat in the close-up scenes, and the special effects use 3-D fairly effectively to extend our perception of the space environment. The performances, the special effects, the series of events, and the direction provide a realistic (although a bit unlikely in spots) study of  an intelligent, highly trained woman facing her limitations and learning her strengths through the urgent immediacy of experience. This is a mature movie for thoughtful people, and should be seen when you are alert and in the mood for a serious story staged in a spectacular environment.

Copyright © 2013 Stereo Club of Southern California