By Michael Arbeiter, Hollywood Staff
Save for its recurring gag about lazy eyes, Free Birds makes it through its 90-minute runtime without so much as a cringe - a rare accomplishment among Hollywood's animated fare lately. Unfortunately, there aren't too many laughs either. The reaction you'll find yourself emitting most often, in fact, will be befuddled gasps. Whatever form of exhalation best represents the question, What the hell is going on?
This emotion will hit you fast in an introductory 20-minutes jam-packed with hyperactive absurdity. We meet Reggie (Owen Wilson), an intelligent free range turkey who is ostracized by his rafter for shunning the corn gods and vocalizing a distrust of that infallible farmer. But just a few quick cutaways later, he's sitting pretty at Camp David, having been chosen as the pardoned turkey by the President of the United States (one in unmistakable Bill Clinton form, complete with accent, thumb gestures, and a joke about his relationship with a female aide). And mere moments after that, Reggie is kidnapped by renegade fowl Jake (Woody Harrelson), a dutiful dimwit whose plan is to utilize the government's top secret time machine to travel back to the first Thanksgiving and get turkeys off the menu forever.
It's a bonkers enough plot to elicit interest in the first place, and a harmless enough story (if you can really call it a story) to keep you from falling offended throughout. But in committing so exhaustingly to this mania, you'd imagine Free Birds to muster up some better material. And the line this film toes is actually rather frustrating; the humor is just passable enough that you almost root for it. You wish it was better. There aren't many laughs, but the almost-laughs come in large supply. The rivalry between alpha males Jake and 17th century wild turkey Ranger (director Hayward), himself a brawny dolt hoping to protect his flock from the approaching humans, dissolves into Leslie Nielsen-esque shtick, but without any impressive panache. Reggie's budding romance with Jenny (Amy Poehler) offers a few bits of banter that could have, through a rewrite or two, been funny. Smirks are plentiful. Laughs are few.
And maybe this is because the story has no characters. Wilson, Harrelson, Poehler, and their legion of backup players trek along with this harebrained script, spouting nonsense verse as the peculiarities ebb and flow. But there's no evolution for Reggie, who identifies himself as a lone wolf but falls hard for Jenny at first sight. There's no true trajectory for Jake, who claims to be haunted by his childhood but is never fleshed out beyond sight gags. There is no lesson to be learned, message to be imparted, or real conclusion to be reached beyond the obvious narrative point to which the turkeys' actions ultimately lead. Free Birds is just a bunch of kooky things going on for an hour and a half, to no real end. But if you want to wean your children into Naked Gun humor, this might be a harmless place to begin.