When it comes to Thanksgiving-themed screen entertainment, families have never exactly been looking at a feast. More like slim pickings. “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” is always a kick, but we’ve seen it so many times that we know Snoopy’s toast-and-jellybeans menu by heart. “Miracle on 34th Street” has its Macy’s Parade scenes, but including it on a Turkey Day list is obviously just glomming onto Christmas’s cheer. And as for what this reviewer grew up watching, oh, please — traditional Thanksgiving viewing was a local indie station’s annual King Kong marathon (always capped by “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” to have, presumably, at least a nominal “turkey” theme).
All of which makes the 3-D animated romp “Free Birds” a welcome foray into underexploited territory, conceptually at least. Cartoon turkeys who go time traveling to get their species off the holiday menu? Sounds fun. Of course, if director Jimmy Hayward (“Horton Hears a Who!”) could have given us a little story development beyond just the premise, that would have been nice too.
Owen Wilson voices Reggie, a smart bird who just doesn’t fit in with his amusingly dimwitted flock. It seems he’s somewhat hipper than the rest as to what that farmer-
escorted trip to “turkey paradise” is actually all about. Funny thing, though — turns out Reggie really is destined for the sweet life, as he lucks into receiving a ceremonial pardon from the president (Hayward, doing double duty, as well as a default Bill Clinton impression).
It can’t last. The First Fowl’s cozy Camp David existence is interrupted by ready-for-action Jake (Woody Harrelson), a fellow bird who turns up spouting crazy talk about a secret government installation and a mission to go back to the first Thanksgiving. (Jake also blathers about receiving his orders from a Great Turkey — shades of “Peanuts,” again.) Before long, a chatty time machine with the voice of George Takei has whisked Reggie and Jake back to 1621 Plymouth. They clumsily try to alert their distant ancestors, a comparatively sharp group that nevertheless has no clue what’s coming. The locals are also accessorized and face-painted to come across as Native Americans, an interesting bit of commentary that just . . . sits there.
We meet Reggie’s native-princess crush, Jenny, who’s played by Amy Poehler in Leslie Knope mode, down to the goofy constituent-rallying. Then there’s Myles Standish (Colm Meaney), a matchstick-chawin’ desperado who’s suitably villainous, even if he seems slightly time-lost himself. They’re adequate characters, but mostly just tossed into scenes that are color-by-numbers busy, and don’t gain anything in 3-D. (Hayward previously directed the live-
action Western “Jonah Hex,” a fizzler that had the same generic feel, while his writing partner, Scott Mosier, is a veteran of Kevin Smith’s plot-lite crew.) At an hour and a half, the action in “Free Birds” gets stretched thin. It’s Thanksgiving fare, sure, but it only partly satisfies our hankering.