THE classic story of Chicken Little, soon to be obscured by the new, computer-generated Disney version, is a cautionary tale about the dangers of overreacting to iffy conclusions and circumstantial evidence: A chicken gets beaned by a falling acorn, deduces that the sky is falling and promptly incites mass hysteria, endangering herself and her friends when a cunning fox takes advantage of the general mayhem.
The movie has nothing in common with the fairy tale other than an eponymous chicken and an incidental acorn. But there do seem to be parallels between the fairy tale and the events leading up to Disney’s first foray into computer-generated animation. The disappointing results of recent hand-drawn features such as “Home on the Range” and “Brother Bear” (“Bear’s” screenwriters Steve Bencich and Ron J. Friedman also wrote “Chicken Little” with Ron Anderson) combined with the concurrent success of Disney-distributed Pixar films such as “The Incredibles” has led the studio to conclude that the future of animation does not include pencils.
It may be too soon to say if Disney has thrown out the baby instead of the stale bathwater by shuttering its hand-drawn animation department. (On this, it’s probably safe to say that traditionalists and geeks will be split down the middle.) More problematic, though, is the idea that for its animated features to have a more “global appeal,” they need to be, you know, like, cool. Of all things, this is a hard one to manufacture. “Chicken Little,” though it has its moments, mostly just feels anxious and overreaching. It tries to be all things to all people and fails to be anything to anyone.
With their hard, plushy-shaped bodies and lazy-lidded eyes, the multi-species residents of Oakey Oaks (an antiseptic slice of Restoration Hardware Americana) have the childish look of Disney theme park characters molded in plastic. But Chicken Little (Zach Braff) and his friends, a “Three Little Pigs"-inspired porker named Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn), an ugly duckling called Abby Mallard (Joan Cusack) and a scuba helmet-wearing fish named Fish Out of Water, are meant to be contemporary teenagers -- though, oddly, they are contemporary teenagers conversant in ‘80s movies, ‘70s dance hits and women’s magazine pop psychology. The frenetic pace and satiric real-world allusions (like when Little finds himself surrounded by reporters with microphones) don’t jibe with the cutesy small-town imagery, and the character design lacks the kind of stylistic unity required to fully buy into an alternate universe like this one. Basically, the tone just feels off -- the movie looks too young for older kids, acts too old for younger kids and is much too hyper for adults.
The movie begins when Chicken Little is hit on the head by something he believes to be a piece of the sky, incites pandemonium and soon finds himself at the center of a media maelstrom. But when his father, Buck Cluck (Garry Marshall), publicly dismisses his story, Little becomes the town laughingstock. A year later, barely able to show his face in public, he desperately seeks to regain his father’s respect by joining the baseball team. Later, he saves the world from an alien invasion.
This is not so much a story as a series of events, so it relies “Shrek"-like -- for energy, excitement and huge chunks of plot -- on other movies. The relentless references to “Back to the Future,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “War of the Worlds” and “Aliens” will no doubt have first-graders nodding in smug recognition, that is if they’re not too scared by the death-ray shooting tripods come to obliterate Oakey Oaks or by the harvested vital organs hung out to dry on the mother ship. This frenetic allusion compulsion, which already feels about as fresh and organic as an old McNugget, is underscored by a grating soundtrack of dance hits from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s (Gloria Gaynor, the Bee Gees, the Spice Girls, C+C Music Factory -- the really old gang’s all here) and anthem-style ‘80s rock. Particularly awful is the theme song, “One Little Slip,” by Barenaked Ladies, which “musicalizes” (publicity-speak) the chicken’s social anxiety with lyrics like: “A cup of good intentions, a tablespoon of one big mess, a dash of overreaction....” It’s hard to tell if you’re supposed to be feeling something or baking a cupcake.
Its best gags are visual (there’s a good one where panicked lemmings jump off a park bench when they can’t find a cliff), but “Chicken Little” relies far too much on mean-spirited fat and ugly jokes at the expense of Runt and Abby to come off as cute. It’s as if the studio had decided to throw off its wholesomeness like tear-away pants. Some of the grown-up jokes are tired and flat -- the thoroughly Oprah-ized Abby rattles on and on about the importance of “closure” between Little and his dad. But at other times, the allusions are so random and bewildering that they suggest perhaps more than was intended. Runt, for instance, is a morbidly obese pig with an anxiety disorder who sings Bee Gees tunes to relax. When he misbehaves, his mother threatens to take away his Streisand records. Forget that the target audience for this movie is unlikely to know who Streisand is, let alone what records are. And why suggest that Runt is gay only to make a joke at his expense?
It would be one thing if this were just another tone-deaf movie, but “Chicken Little” is an example of the kind of reactionary thinking the fairy tale derides.
Ironically, the original story of Chicken Little is more pointed, caustic and relevant than anything that wound up on screen, and it could have been harnessed into something smart and cathartic for both kids and parents. But the movie falls into a trap any unpopular kid can tell you is a big mistake -- it tries way too hard.
MPAA rating: G
Times guidelines: Contains some alien invasion scenes that could be scary for young children
A Buena Vista Pictures Distribution release of a Walt Disney Pictures presentation. Directed by Mark Dindal. Screenplay by Steve Bencich & Ron J. Friedman and Ron Anderson. Story by Mark Dindal, Mark Kennedy. Producers Randy Fullmer, Mark Dindal. Production designer David Womersley. Art director Ian Gooding. Editor Dan Molina. Visual effects supervisor Steve Goldberg. CG supervisors Kevin Geiger, Kyle Odermatt. Score composed, conducted by John Debney. Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
By the Numbers / Disney animated movies
With the arrival today of “Chicken Little,” Disney’s first full-fledged foray into computer animation, it may be instructive to look back at the studio’s animated movies since “The Lion King.” This list excludes Pixar movies such as “The Incredibles” and “Finding Nemo” and includes only movies made by Disney feature animation units, not those produced by the television and direct-to-video division, a few of which, such as “Pooh’s Heffalump Movie,” received theatrical releases. The films are listed in reverse chronological order.
Film (year released) / Domestic gross (in millions)
“Home on the Range” ('04) / $50.0
“Brother Bear” ('03) / $85.3
“Treasure Planet” ('02) / $38.2
“Lilo & Stitch” ('02) / $145.8
“Atlantis: The Lost Empire” ('01) / $84.1
“The Emperor’s New Groove” ('00) / $89.3
“Dinosaur” ('00) / $137.7
“Fantasia 2000" ('00) / $60.7
“Tarzan” ('99) / $171.1
“Mulan” ('98) / $120.6
“Hercules” ('97) / $99.1
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” ('96) / $100.1
“James and the Giant Peach” ('96) / $28.9
“Pocahontas” ('95) / $141.6
“The Lion King” ('94) / $328.5
Source: Times research, Nielsen EDI Inc.Los Angeles Times