** (out of four)
Think of how sleepy you become after Thanksgiving dinner and you’ll know the effect of “Free Birds,” a 3-D comedy-adventure that reinforces the dire state of animation in depressing fashion. Even a movie that doesn’t follow the identical plotline as everything else—fortunately, “Free Birds” isn’t about a baby turkey who wants to grow up to be something more—suffers from a near-total lack of cleverness.
It’s not for lack of trying. “Free Birds” is absolutely manic, favoring quantity over quality, and racing past jokes that might have been a little funny with extra time to breathe. Hey, director/co-writer Jimmy Hayward (“Horton Hears a Who!,” “Jonah Hex”): Three strikes and you’re out.
A bizarre effort to capitalize on Thanksgiving, the film’s about Reggie (voiced by Owen Wilson), who lives a cushy life in the White House after the President (voiced by Hayward) designates him as the pardoned turkey, the lone bird to avoid the holiday genocide. Lacking any survivor’s guilt, Reggie indulges in the lazy simplicity of pizza, TV and a comfy bed—a lifestyle anyone can appreciate. Alas, along comes Jake (Woody Harrelson), a turkey insistent that Reggie join his mission to go back in time and prevent their species from inclusion on the first Thanksgiving menu in 1621.
Save the ancestors, save the turkey world.
Inevitably, Reggie meets a romantic prospect in Jenny (Amy Poehler), the daughter of Chief Broadbeak (Keith David) and blah blah blah. While I appreciate “Free Birds” passing on a “Jenny from the flock” gag, predictable nods to “Angry Birds” and, because this is a time travel story, “Back to the Future” and “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” should earn no better than nods of recognition, if not groans. Only Harrelson sounds like he read the script in advance.
To be fair, “Free Birds” starts off with a few inspired bits, including a disclaimer about the film’s intentional lack of historical accuracy. A lovely scene of mourning a fallen comrade creates a proud tradition among the feathered community. Yet the majority of jokes—other than those involving Jenny’s lazy eye—monotonously reference turkeys’ stupidity and ditch themes about independent thinking for a standard-issue message about the value of family. Parents are better off ditching the kids and seeing the week’s other time travel movie “About Time,” which contains actual laughs and far fewer depictions of turkey butt muscles.
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