“Free Birds” is more proof, as if 2013 needed it, that Hollywood has almost killed the animated goose that laid the golden egg.
No matter that in this case, the goose is a turkey. You didn’t need to be told that. But a year that has produced the clever and heartfelt “The Croods” and the passably amusing “Despicable Me 2” has also had a healthy dose of sausage factory about it. “Epic,” “Monsters University,” “Planes,” “Escape from Planet Earth,” “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2” and “Turbo” — all major pictures that hint at a talent pool spread absurdly thin and an industry with sneering contempt for its audience. (“Animate it, charge 3-D prices and their parents will grit their teeth and bear it!”)
A start-up division called Reflex Animation did “Free Birds.” Relativity is releasing it. They make the same mistakes that generations of animators made before them, having a cute idea and a feeble script to go with it, lining up a “name” voice cast to over-compensate.
Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Amy Poehler and George Takei — funny folks, one and all. Yet there’s barely a laugh in it. The strain shows, right at the opening credits, when a title tells us this “is loosely based” on a true story — “unless, of course” you take into account the talking turkeys who talk turkey.
Wilson voices Reggie, a scrawny Jeremiah at his turkey farm, the one guy to figure out why he and his flock are being fattened up. “Turkeys are dumb,” he narrates as his peers clap as friends and family are dragged off to “turkey paradise.”
But Reggie is that lucky bird who wins a presidential pardon. The gag writers thought it would be cute to make this Southern president with the bratty daughter Clintonian. Hellooo, 1996.
Reggie has barely settled into a pampered life of pizzas and TV watching at Camp David when the demented Jake (Harrelson) shows up to birdnap him and enlist Reggie in his mission — to steal the secret Camp David time machine, travel back to early America and change Thanksgiving history, “to get turkey OFF the menu.”
In 1621 Plymouth, the Pilgrims are starving — save for the portly Gov. Bradford (Dan Fogler). Myles Standish (Colm Meaney) is a trigger-happy menace who figures he can turkey-hunt the colony to safety.
And the Massachusetts turkeys themselves? They’re natives — as in painted up, like Washington Redskins mascots. Jake and Reggie must win over the native flock (Poehler and Keith David among them) to save them and turkeys of the future.
The few gags there are seem borrowed from better, earlier films — short attention span turkeys inspired by Dory of “Finding Nemo,” “Braveheart” battle scenes, mismatched “buddies” from a hundred better buddy comedies.
The odd throw-away line works. The president’s daughter is a 6-year-old blabbermouth who blurts out to Reggie that this general “has issues” and that overweight maid “eats her feelings.” And Gov. Bradford is forever minimizing his responsibility for the dying colonists.
But the sight gags fall flat and much of the screenplay seems like a rough draft that the filmmakers — Jimmy Hayward directed the superior “Horton Hears a Who” — expected the actors to fix. And they didn’t.
Casting Takei (“Oh, my!”) as the time machine will amuse adults. Giving him little more than his catch-phrase to say won’t.
Frozen, under-cooked and sorely lacking much in the way of “all the trimmings,” this turkey isn’t ready to serve.
Cast: Voices of Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Amy Poehler, Keith David, Colm Meaney
Directed by Jimmy Hayward, screenplay by Jimmy Hayward and Scott Mosier. A Relativity release.
Running time: 1:31
MPAA rating: PG for some action / peril and rude humor