Director : Mark Dindal
Screenplay : Steve Bencich & Ron J. Friedman (addition story material by Robert L. Baird & Dan Gerson)
MPAA Rating : G
Year of Release : 2005
Exhibit A in the case of “Why Disney Needs Pixar” is Chicken Little, Disney’s first solo computer-animated effort. Although a perfectly presentable animated comedy, it lacks any sense of magic or true innovation. Its cobbled-together story feels like Children’s Comedy 101 thrown into a blender, and its jokes are too hit-and-miss to really sustain a sense of comedic rhythm to counterbalance its awkward pathos about ruptured parent-child relations (in a rare Disney movie, the child hero is not an orphan, although his father is a widower, so at least there’s some form of off-screen death hanging over the proceedings).
Zach Braff (Scrubs) voices the titular chicken of diminished proportions, who lives in a cute little town where all the characters are animals, giving the movie the look of a Richard Scarry book come to life. Chicken Little’s father, Buck Cluck (Gary Marshall), is an enormous former baseball hero who is ashamed that his teeny son has become famous for causing a town-wide panic by claiming that the sky is falling. In the original British children’s story, the sky really isn’t falling, which is central to its message; but, because the filmmakers need an 80-minute movie in which the hero is redeemed, they must find a way to make the sky actually fall.
So, they throw in alien invaders to explain the falling sky, which turns the second half of the movie into a chaotic riff on H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, complete with spindly, octopus-like mechanical aliens rampaging through town and vaporizing anything in its way. But, because this is a kids’ movie, everything has an eventual nonviolent explanation. There is a cutsey explanation for why the aliens aren’t evil, marauding intergalactic conquerors, and even their death rays aren’t as bad as they first seem.
The first half of the movie treads water until the alien invasion, giving us a subplot involving Chicken Little’s desire to play in the big baseball game in order to impress his disapproving dad. This is also gives director Mark Dindal (whose last Disney film, The Emperor’s New Groove, hit the kind of whacked-out comic highs that Chicken Little fails to reach) a chance to introduce all the main characters, including Chicken Little’s best friends, the ironically misnamed pig Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn) and the bucktoothed duck Abby Mallard (Joan Cusack), otherwise known as “the ugly duckling.” The movie’s early scenes at Chicken Little’s school are actually some of its best, as they skewer social cliques and pressure to confirm in amusing ways (when the coach has the kids play dodgeball, he demands that all the popular kids play on one side and the unpopular kids play on the other). Attempts at pop-culture humor, on the other hand, including references to Girls Gone Wild and Runt of Litter’s penchant for singing ’70s disco tunes when nervous, are simply de rigueur.
While Chicken Little is intermittently funny in a slapstick, zany kind of way, its visual look is largely disappointing (again, one has to assume that the missing piece of the puzzle here is Pixar, whose computer-animated films like Finding Nemo and The Incredibles are so visually rich). The world of Chicken Little is simple and soft, without the kind of witty details and imagination that truly bring fantasy films to life. There are a few amusing sight gags, such as a traffic-control lizard that changes colors according to the sign he’s holding, but they are too scattershot to really cohere. The characters are all well-illustrated and emotionally expressive, but since they’re put in the service of a story that never comes together, it feels like a lot of energy expended for little gain.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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