Let's get this out of the way right now: Free Birds is fucking awful. It is everything wrong with contemporary family filmmaking and mainstream American animation bottled up in 91 minutes of pure market-driven soulless plasticine trash. If not for one performance much better than the screenplay deserves, and some interestingly nonsensical character design, there'd be absolutely nothing of merit in the whole bloody mess, only a series of inane plot developments married to blandly colorful settings and protagonists, and humor too bizarre for children and too trivial and trite for anyone with two digits in their age. A truly dedicated stoner might find some meager enjoyment in the spectacle of an underweight turkey acting like... like a stoner, to put it bluntly, but other than that reasonably small niche audience, I can't imagine who needs or would want Free Birds in their life.

The film tells a story that is absolutely deranged, and not just because it involves turkeys stealing a U.S. government time machine from underneath Camp David to travel back to the first Thanksgiving to prevent their ancestors from ending up on the table and thus safe countless thousands of their fellow birds from systematic slaughter every autumn. That, in fact, is where the story begins to settle down and become sane. Prior to that, we are given a whirlwind first act or two in which free range artisan turkey Reggie (Owen Wilson) is a prophet of doom among his farmyard, begging the other turkeys to take seriously his belief that they're all being fattened up to be killed, but that farm happens to be where the President of the United States (director Jimmy Hayward, one of the many voices he provided for the film) has come to get the lucky bird for the annual Presidential Pardon of the Thanksgiving Turkey. The other turkeys are so angry at Reggie for being so tedious that they pitch him out to what they believe is an angry god demanding sacrifice, and thus he is picked by the president's enthusiastic, oversharing daughter (Kaitlyn Maher). Reggie then begins to enjoy the good life at Camp David, ordering Chuck E. Cheese's delivery pizza by the carload, despite Chuck E. Cheese not offering delivery, and also this is the most overt product placement, but not the most fucking inane, in a film that suggests that an Auntie Anne's pretzel stand is in a secure government facility. However, Reggie is kidnapped a burly, stupid turkey named Jake (Woody Harrelson), convinced that the Great Turkey has ordered him to go back in time to stop Thanksgiving, and he forces Reggie to join him in breaking into a military lab to steal their time machine, with a talking operating system named S.T.E.V.E. (George Takei).

Ideas, characters, locations, and tones are swapped out with abandon every three or four minutes (the president's daughter is an especially terrible example: she represents a one-note joke that's already pitched at an audience several years older than the rest of the film at least, and she's far too specific and discordant an element to be involved in such a tiny amount of the film), and if you were to walk out for a bathroom break, say, the film you returned to might seem to be a genuinely different story altogether. This isn't a plot; it's an exquisite corpse game turned into a screenplay.

I can fairly easily imagine a scenario in which this would work, perhaps even create a masterpiece of modern animation. Think of the great anarchic cartoons of the mid-20th Century; the exact reason they worked so well was specifically because of the freewheeling, unpredictable way that stories spilled out all over themselves. They also worked so well because they were directed and animated with a mind towards creating an environment in which anarchy could flourish, and this is the exact opposite of what happens in Free Birds, a film whose aesthetics are as rigidly conservative as any animated film in recent years. The character designs, dysmorphic and just slightly on the cute side of grotesque, feel like a passable knock-off of DreamWorks Animation; the eyes are clearly stolen from Pixar; the sets and lighting have the same softened, bright-color physical realism of pretty much every single CGI movie out there. Reel FX, making its first narrative feature, has proven at least that it can prove a reasonable simulacrum of commercially-viable cinema, but not that it can do this with any creativity to speak of, or even a good sense of how imagery and content interact with one another.

This is on top of the spectacularly dumb story, which throws every limp idea out there at the story, hoping that eventually some of it will turn into something interesting to watch: the stock love interest (Amy Poehler, completely wasted on a nothing part) with unpleasantly anthropomorphic curves, the usual beats in which the hero is ready to give up and retrench into selfishness before coming around to kick off a final action sequence. The film's time travel mechanics aren't so much sloppy as they are non-existent, the decision to render the 1621 turkeys as Native American Indians is phenomenally tasteless, the jokes are never, ever funny, and the conflict shifts so frequently that the plot never has any kind of momentum to it at all.

But as I said, there are a couple of good things. The design of the Plymouth humans is squishy in amusing ways, and Woody Harrelson's performance is robust and committed, and even if he spends an unbelievable amount of time talking about the pecs and buttocks that turkeys do not have, he does so with great joy. It's a little thing, to have a single fun performance in the midst of such much mechanical crap, but it is the key and vital difference between a movie that is unwatchable and a movie that is suicidally unpleasant. I never wanted to kill myself during Free Birds, at least, though it did leave me with an insatiable desire to kill and some cute animals with my bare teeth.