Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky thinks this movie tastes like chicken.
"Why don't I just go back to the day when things took a turn for the worse?"—Buck Cluck (Garry Marshall)
In that dark time between the first blush of love and the wedding itself, Disney and Pixar were not getting along so well. So Disney thought it could show Pixar who was boss by making a little CG baby of its own, without Pixar's help. That child was called Chicken Little. Will it disappoint its parents?
Facts of the Case
Have you heard the story about the chicken that cried wolf? The denizens of Oakey Oaks will never forget it. Chicken Little's little "mistake" caused total chaos and even became a popular local legend. But did the sky really fall?
A year after the false alarm, Chicken Little (Zach Braff) is still living down the shame and humiliation. His father (Garry Marshall) is embarrassed by him; his friends—Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn), Ugly Duckling (Joan Cusak), and Fish Out of Water—are only barely less popular than he is. And he has nothing but bad luck.
But the nerds of Oakey Oaks may get their chance to save the day when the sky really does fall and an alien invasion rolls in. Can Chicken Little and friends triumph and get a lucrative Hollywood movie deal too?
I want to spend a moment before we talk about the film itself to make a few observations about the cover of the Chicken Little DVD. The image that greets children and parents as they pick this up in the store is this: the title character seated casually in a cracked-egg chair, legs crossed, shirt unbuttoned at the collar. He wears sunglasses; his coxcomb wavers jauntily over one brow. Microphones are thrust in his direction, and his friends pop out from behind his chair like they are momentarily shocked by the onslaught of media attention. But the unflappable Chicken Little merely waits, his fingers outstretched on his lap, as if celebrity comes so naturally.
This is the image that Disney wants to send to your brain. Chicken Little is already a star. He is a media celebrity, perhaps a franchise. You will acknowledge his A-list status, even before popping his star vehicle into your DVD player. This is not about Chicken Little as a character in a movie, a CG creation voiced by Zach Braff (Scrubs). This is all about Chicken Little the actor—the movie star—joining the Disney cast of characters (Mickey Mouse leading the pack of course) who largely play themselves in their public appearances.
All this suggests Disney's ambitious plans for Chicken Little the movie. After all, this was their response to Pixar's strategic inability to extend its original partnership deal a couple of years back. Steve Jobs was hinting at leaving the Disney fold, fed up with the equally ego-driven Michael Eisner. So Eisner countered with a startup CG unit that he hoped could compete with Pixar on its own turf. It was not the first time, of course. Back in 2000, Disney invested a ton of money in what was dubbed the "Secret Lab," a CG movie department that would eventually turn out Dinosaur. But the Secret Lab was gutted when Disney learned that Pixar could make profitable films without Disney having to actually spend any money (at least, not on the order of the $200 million rumor said Dinosaur cost). I suppose this makes Dinosaur the real abandoned child of this story. So it goes.
Anyway, the upshot of all of this posturing at Pixar, Disney's effort to prove that they didn't really need Steve Jobs, came out to much hype. It did reasonably well at the box office, but not enough to frighten the competition. Eventually, Disney capitulated, bought out Pixar for a busload of money, and put creative guru John Lasseter in charge of fixing up what Disney had broken over the years. We don't know how all that will turn out just yet, but it is almost certainly a more interesting story than the one you will find in Chicken Little.
From the opening moments, you know that this is a film built by committee to please you, the American consumer with disposable income and twitchy children. All the elements are there: in-jokes referencing American popular culture (a big ball rolls through a movie theater playing Raiders of the Lost Ark), montage sequences set to peppy tunes (Chicken Little bumbles his way to school to the rhythm of Barenaked Ladies), hip voice casting (it-boy Zach Braff as the title character). But the film is so paint-by-numbers much of the time.
I suspect Disney wanted to go all out with this film, but even at 80 minutes, the whole thing seems padded. The film takes an awfully long time to actually get to the plot, wandering off on tangents throughout (a long baseball sequence takes up much of the first act; the finale includes a padded "Hollywood" version of the story). The script could have easily filled out a short, but Disney needed it feature length. So director Mark Dindal (who made the underrated Cats Don't Dance and the cute but slapdash The Emperor's New Groove) spends the first half developing Chicken Little as a misunderstood geek with even geekier friends. Unfortunately, this attempt at serious characterization clashes with the film's cartoon hyperbole (nursery rhyme characters, plasticky landscape). Compare this with, say, Finding Nemo, where the level of realism made it easy to buy the characters as three dimensional. I will give points for the effort, but just as you are starting to get warmed up to the characters, the film veers away in another direction entirely. The film's second half drops much of the charm of the more aimless, character-driven first half. Once the aliens show up, Chicken Little gets noisy and abrasive, an action film with passing gags. And the characters are so cartoonish that it is hard to feel any suspense during these chase scenes. In short, the pieces of the film do not fit together.
The real strength of Chicken Little is its clever voice-casting in supporting roles. Garry Marshall plays Chicken Little's father as, well, very Jewish. Entertaining turns by Amy Sedaris (school bully Foxy Loxy), Don Knotts (perfectly realized as a turkey), and others bring things to life for a time, even if the title character seems a bit, well, flat. Although there seem to be an awful lot of top-notch voices in the film—Patrick Stewart, Patrick Warburton, what seems like half of Christopher Guest's reparatory company (Harry Shearer, Catherine O'Hara, and Fred Willard)—who only turn up for a few seconds. This smacks of stunt casting, picking voices because they are recognizable actors, not because they fit the characters. I expect that sort of thing from DreamWorks (and I do not mean that as a compliment), but I was hoping that Disney, in its effort to be like Pixar here, would know better.
Still, it has its charming moments. It lacks the warmth of Pixar's output—this smacks of too much calculation to really feel authentic—but it is not bad. And it is not as noisy and crammed with cynicism as DreamWorks' CG films, which always feel like they are written by guys in suits who are adding jokes they think are funny because their market research told them.
It would be nice to hear some candid commentary from Mark Dindal about the film's production (although I suspect it was nowhere near as torturous as his experiences on The Emperor's New Groove), but this is Disney, so there will be nothing candid about the extras on this disc. Like you expected it to be any different? We do get some deleted scenes material, not all of it completed (yes, not everything apparently made it into the already padded film), a standard behind-the-scenes featurette that keeps it simple for the kids, a trivia game hosted by Harry Shearer, and some music videos for the tweens. The most interesting thing you will learn from all of this is that Chicken Little was originally supposed to be a girl with an overactive imagination.
Disney pointedly does not include the 1943 "Chicken Little" short that worked as a snappy cautionary tale about wartime hysteria, but you can catch that on the Disney Rarities and On the Front Lines Treasures sets. Still, it might have been nice to let viewers compare the surprisingly paranoid edge in the 1943 short with the more comfortable family-bonding themes played out in the 2005 feature.
So, the sky isn't exactly falling when it comes to Chicken Little. But there are certainly some loose screws up there somewhere. This is a film that, while not a bust, will likely entertain you for its running time—and then be quickly forgotten. I suspect Disney would like to forget about it too, letting it slip through the cracks as an indiscretion that goes unmentioned around their new Pixar friends wandering the halls at the Burbank studio. That is a pity, because the film does not really deserve that kind of scorn. In a decade, this one may become an underrated historical curiosity. Just don't get your hopes up.
Chicken Little lays an egg, but at least the court was able to make a serviceable omelet. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• "Hatching Chicken Little" Featurette
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