“Free Birds” is an odd duck. The animated feature has a nifty premise: time-traveling turkeys, for starters. They’re critters on a mission, as one would assume, their goal nothing less than rewriting American culinary history — and the fate of their species — by changing the main course at the first Thanksgiving. Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson and Amy Poehler contribute spirited voice work, and the movie renders the Plymouth Colony in a rich autumn palette. But like the ungainly avian creatures at the center of the herky-jerky adventure, this ‘toon seldom gets off the ground.
With its flat punch lines, formulaic action and undercooked mélange of messages — touching on everything from factory farming to genocide — the film waddles awkwardly. Kids will enjoy the slapstick and overlook the moldy jokes; grown-ups will be slightly amused, bored or mildly offended, depending on how much energy they choose to invest in the experience.
The first feature from Dallas-based animation house Reel FX, “Free Birds” isn’t destined to become a holiday tradition. It is, however, crafted with expressive characters (who gain nothing from the needless 3-D).
Wilson is dependably anxious and engaging as Reggie, a free-range bird whose IQ is off the turkey meter. Understanding what’s in store for his corn-fattened flock as Thanksgiving nears, he tries to instigate an uprising. It would be a feat just to raise the consciousness of his domesticated, doomed brethren, who are grateful to be fed and don’t want to mess up a good thing.
Reggie goes a little brain-dead himself, settling in for some pampered downtime at Camp David when he becomes the United States’ official pardoned turkey. He discovers the wonders of delivery pizza and telenovelas, identifying with one show’s lone-wolf hero. It’s a given that he’ll learn the errors of his loner ways. Juggling themes, the screenplay by Scott Mosier and director Jimmy Hayward revolves around a familiar trope: An outsider finds his place in the world.
Toward that end, Reggie is forcibly recruited by turkey freedom fighter Jake (voiced by vocal vegan Harrelson) for a trip to 1621 Massachusetts, where he falls for Jenny (Poehler), one of the smart, wild turkeys unspoiled by modern life. The devolution from the 17th century tough birds’ wisdom and hard work to the dimwitted inertia of Reggie’s contemporaries is one of several dark undertows to the goofy-earnest proceedings. There’s also the prison-like terrors of an industrial farm and the disconcerting parallel between American Indians and the persecuted Plymouth turkeys, with their tribal face paint and rituals. It’s an unwieldy mix. The recipe’s proportions are off — at the least, the vegetarian messaging would be more palatable without the Chuck E. Cheese product placement.
As good as Wilson and Harrelson are, the buddy shtick doesn’t click. Hayward (“Horton Hears a Who!”) does get some comic traction, however broad, from the competitive posturing between Jake and another alpha turkey. Colm Meaney’s somewhat deranged Myles Standish and George Takei’s wry talking space capsule lend some shadings.
But shadings are little consolation when the gags refuse to take flight. Late in the movie, a gleeful sendup of time-travel logic suggests the gratifying comic meal that “Free Birds” might have been if it had less on its plate.
MPAA rating: PG for some action/peril and rude humor.
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Playing: In general release