Review: Wilson and Harrelson can’t make uneven animated comedy ‘Free Birds’ fly

If you didn’t read my “About Time” review earlier this week, it serves as a sort of unintentional preamble to this review, since by one of those weird quirks of film development and release, they’re both time travel movies.

Richard Curtis uses the idea of time travel to explore the idea of what the heart wants. It’s that simple. If you could do it, how would you build yourself the perfect life? It is a device that allows him to write about everything, really. He explores a lot of ideas in his film, and in some very personal ways.

“Free Birds,” on the other hand, asks a big silly question: what if turkeys could change the first Thanksgiving so turkey never makes it on the national menu?

But… wait… is that a silly question? The film opens in a turkey farm, and it makes explicit in the first few moments that these turkeys are being fattened up for eventual slaughter. Reggie (Owen Wilson) is the one turkey who can see through to the code of the Matrix. He knows what’s coming. And as a result of his near-constant state of panic, he’s ostracized, an outsider.

When he’s picked in the days before Thanksgiving, he’s sure that his number’s up. Instead, he is pardoned on national television by the President and then taken back to the White House to live as a pet for the President’s daughter. Reggie sees this as karmic vindication and settles into a life of daytime TV and pizza delivery.

Then, completely out of the blue, a giant muscle-bound turkey named Jake (Woody Harrelson) shows up, abducts Reggie, and takes him to a top-secret military base where they steal a time machine. So it’s safe to say the film takes a left turn in tone, and that’s part of what I found mystifying about it. It’s an issue from design all the way through script, this sort of wrestling match over what movie they’re making. Is it a broad goofy comedy? If so, does fear of being murdered and eaten really seem like the foundation to build on for that particular goal?

Jimmy Hayward, who directed and co-wrote the film, made “Horton Hears A Who” before jumping to live-action for “Jonah Hex.” Here, he and his co-writer Scott Mosier are making something that isn’t really a kid’s film, but it’s not something I can imagine most adults deciding to go see on their own. More than anything, the sense of humor in the film is frantic, and I think you can decide if this is a film you want to see based on one idea: in the film, George Takei is the voice of the sassy time travel machine’s onboard computer S.T.E.V.E.

Are you laughing at the thought of the computer saying “Oh, my”? Then buy your ticket. You’re in luck.

There are jokes that land, and there are some moments where the film comes together visually, but overall, it feels thin. Considering you’ve got a cast with Wilson, Harrelson and Amy Poehler as Jenny, the daughter of the leader of the native turkey tribe who are led to revolution by Reggie and Jake (seriously), it’s not particularly playful. Noisy, yes. There are a lot of jokes. It’s like sitting across from someone who is pitching jokes at you nonstop whether they work for the story or not. Colm Meaney, Keith David, Dan Fogler, and Hayward himself all contribute voices, and everyone’s fine in it. When the film does finally try to change gears to get serious and sentimental, it’s so unearned that it feels like a big misstep.

Most notably, though, their time-travel story is pure straight-up nonsense, but how can you complain about that if you’re watching a movie where turkeys and pilgrims actually battle? Rules doesn’t remotely have to make sense, and so they don’t. It’s not really “about” anything, so the time travel doesn’t advance anything in terms of theme, and it doesn’t really illuminate the relationship between people and turkeys or predators and prey. It’s just… silly. It’s the exact opposite of what something like “About Time” is, and it’s fascinating to see two such clear examples of how you can start from one similar thing and end up in totally different places.

When a company like Reel FX makes a feature, it’s not the same thing as when Pixar or Disney or DreamWorks do it. Those are production lines, machines that exist to develop and release movies. They are unstoppable at this point. For Reel FX, each film matters, and so seeing something like “Free Birds” confuses me. Why compete in the exact same space that all of those giant assembly lines are already dominant in? Why make the same movies they’re making and hope that you can chip off a piece of their money? Why not take those resources and try something that makes Reel FX unique? If you’re doing what is essentially independent animation for features, it would seem like the one way to really stand out right now is to not chase the same exact money that’s already being made. Why not tell a story that takes advantage of animation but that we haven’t seen before?

I’ve asked questions like this before. I think it’s pointless to lament what Pixar isn’t or what Disney isn’t because they are monoliths. It’s just baffling to me to see someone try this hard to reproduce someone else’s thing when animation, by its very nature, is about being able to do anything. “Free Birds” isn’t terrible, but it feels like a hollow exercise hung on a questionable premise, and one that has no clear sense of who it is trying to entertain.

“Free Birds” is in theaters today.