In the first fifteen minutes of “Free Birds,” a jarringly awful, new animated comedy loosely centered around a bunch of historical anachronisms about Thanksgiving, we’re introduced to Reggie (Owen Wilson), a turkey who is seemingly the only bird on the farm to realize that they’re getting fattened up for slaughter. He’s then ostracized from his flock and given the annual Presidential pardon. While relaxing at Camp David, he’s intercepted by Jake (Woody Harrelson), the President of the Turkeys Liberation Front, and boards a time machine in an effort to stop the first Thanksgiving from happening, thus saving countless turkeys through history. Again: this is all in the first fifteen minutes.
And honestly, at least initially, the film has a wacky, “Looney Tunes“-esque elasticity. The jokes don’t necessarily land, but there are at least enough of them to keep you marginally entertained, mostly by sheer force and velocity. The best bit in this hellzapoppin’ opening is when Reggie becomes enamored with a Telenovela called “El Lobo Solo,” a show that seemingly reinforces his belief in hearty individualism. However, once the two turkeys travel back in time, the movie grinds to a halt. The zippy mayhem of the early scenes, while certainly uneven, was at least manic enough to keep you awake. Once they hit pilgrim times, it’s a fight to the bitter end to remain conscious.
While in 1621, the modern-day turkeys befriend a flock of turkeys that largely, for reasons that are never made particularly clear, resemble Native Americans (even though the movie continually refers to said culture as “Indian”). This is where Reggie falls in love with Jenny (Amy Poehler), a lovely female turkey with a lazy eye. The two engage in a lengthy, incredibly strained romance while the actual gears of the plot fail to churn forward (how they’re supposed to disrupt the first Thanksgiving and save all of those turkeys is never clearly articulated, being saved for a rousing dues ex machina in the last act).
It’s during the agonizing midsection of the movie that you realize the entire production is designed to trick young kids into thinking that they’re watching a better, superior animated movie that they’ve already seen. Wilson is known mostly (at least in the kindergarten demo) for his work as racecar Lightning McQueen in Pixar‘s two “Cars” movies and here he delivers his lines with the same dickish bravado. Keith David, whose velvety menace brought a lot to his voodoo trickster in Disney‘s wonderful “The Princess and the Frog,” goes for a similar feeling here as the leader of the flock but with diminishing results. There are jump-suited thugs that look exactly like characters from “Monsters Inc” and the President’s daughter (who takes a shine to Reggie) seems to be closely modeled on one of the little girls from “Despicable Me.”
This isn’t exactly surprising, given that animation studio Reel FX has made a fairly solid career out of imitating other, better animation studios. The company was responsible for a pair of “Open Season” sequels for Sony, a collection of “Despicable Me”-themed short films, a “Simpsons” theme park attraction, an “Ice Age” Christmas special, and a “Kung Fu Panda” home video spin-off. In other words: originality isn’t exactly their strong suit. And while the animation, rendered in unnecessary 3D, doesn’t exactly dazzle, there is a kind of workmanlike appeal to it.
The problem, of course, is that the movie’s screenplay, credited to director Jimmy Hayward and, of all people, Kevin Smith confederate Scott Mosier, is beyond abysmal. Hayward was an animation vet who tried to make the leap to live action with the similarly disastrous comic book western “Jonah Hex;” he returned to animation to lick his wounds and, apparently, inflict even more cinematic damage. “Free Birds” is unappealingly staged and paced with an uneven sluggishness. It begs the question: since things always seem to be happening, why is it all so crushingly dull?
Emotionally, nothing matters in “Free Birds.” The characters are so two-dimensional that a meaningful connection with the material isn’t elusive; it’s downright impossible. Towards the end of the movie, there is an attempt at a kind of resonant, Bambi’s mother-type death, but it doesn’t work at all. This partially has to do with the hazy animation, but more to do with the filmmakers inability to strongly define characters or give the audience anything (anything) to care about in the story.
We’ll sidestep the many issues involved in the film’s time travel threads, which don’t just create paradoxes but entire plot holes big enough to drive a DeLorean through. And the less said about the movie’s questionable depictions of race and ethnicity the better, both because it’s a movie about talking, time traveling turkeys and because, if we started talking about it, we’d probably be here all day. And we’ve got laundry to do. (Even more worrisome is the end credits sequence, one that suggests a turkey character has radically altered key moments in history for shits and giggles.)
“Free Birds” seems to know how inessential it is. An entire year was shaved off the production after “Mr. Peabody and Sherman,” originally scheduled for this date, was postponed. And it seems to know that it only has a few good weeks of box office potential. Not only is Thanksgiving just around the corner, but so is Disney’s heavily hyped animated fairy tale “Frozen.” Once that opens, “Free Birds” is dead meat. In the filmmakers’ wildest imagination, they probably hoped that this would become an annual holiday classic, one trotted out every year once the adults have fallen asleep to their football games. But honestly, that seems nearly impossible. Even fresh, “Free Turkeys” is lame; it probably fares even worse as leftovers. [D-]