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"Chicken Little": Disney Lays a Bronze Egg

Though they recently kissed and made up on a long weekend in Barbados, in 2005 Disney and Pixar’s relationship came to a rocky end, and as the former dodged Wedgwood barrages it drunkenly vowed to succeed on its own in the CGI world. Those flying saucers gave Disney six stitches and an idea: what if they mixed a beloved children’s story with a bit of sci-fi? The resulting Chicken Little did actually prove to be a quality CGI feature, just not Pixar quality.

ImageUnlike critically acclaimed Pixar blockbusters such as Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, which deftly draw in children and adults alike, the less ambitious Chicken is content to play to the Happy Meal crowd. Taking its cue more from Dreamworks’ Madagascar, the film is a safe, predictable vehicle with an emphasis on juvenile/cute humor for younger kids. The cast is generally forgettable, and the story an awkward union of Rudy and War of the Worlds. Chicken may approximate Pixar’s skin, but certainly not its soul.

To the film’s credit, the sci-fi twist on the story of the chicken that cried wolf, so to speak, is ingenious. It’s too bad it doesn’t begin until the second half, and though at first engagingly suspenseful and even spooky is soon undone by a most prosaic revelation.

As in the book, the diminutive but plucky fowl Chicken Little (Zach Braff) earns a reputation as a nutcase in his small hometown by declaring the sky is falling and causing a general panic. It’s merely the first in a series of disappointments for his widowed father Buck (Gary Marshall), who though caring eventually resigns himself to the notion that his trouble prone son may not amount to much. CL is determined to win back Buck’s respect by following in his footsteps and joining the school baseball team. After much bench warming, CL finally gets up and scores the winning run in the championship game. He and his overjoyed father agree to put the “crazy” past behind them, but soon after it returns to haunt CL. He discovers something actually is falling from the sky, and it may not be terrestrial or friendly. Afraid to risk his dad’s ridicule, CL and his school buddies Abby the ugly duckling (Joan Cusack), Runt the rotund pig (Steve Zahn), and Fish the nutty, well, fish set out to investigate.

ImageI like that Disney followed Pixar’s practice of casting smaller names, rather than the obvious superstars Dreamworks prefers. It allows the characters to stand on their own, unhindered by any preconceived notions. Unfortunately Chicken‘s cast is almost too anonymous. Motormouth Braff’s CL does add some spark, often stumbling over his words or into trouble but never giving up. There are also cracking cameos from veteran hams Don Knotts, Adam West, and Harry Shearer. West is sure to draw a smile playing a corny Hollywood action star version of CL in his usual Batman hero mode. The other performances are competent but unremarkable.

The opening chaos, including a charming if predictable homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s opening, and the big baseball game both pack some excitement, but most of the thrills arrive with the town’s mysterious visitors. A harrowing chase through a dark cornfield recalls Signs rather deliberately, and the concluding race to Town Hall reminded me of Back to the Future. Among the few chuckles is the bodyguard who coaches the mayor via cynical cue cards during the ballgame: WEEP HOPELESSLY, CHECK ZIPPER, etc.

Perhaps it’s happened before in another of their countless productions, but I can’t recall a recent Disney film in which the parent loses faith in his child so obviously and thoroughly. It’s a bit of a shock to see a Disney father effectively tell his son he thinks he’s a loser, a bitter pill for a kid CL’s age to swallow. Although things don’t stay gloomy for too long, there’s a refreshing lack of sugarcoating for this rather adult family interaction.

ImageIn another possible Disney first some doubt is obliquely cast on Runt’s sexual orientation. Even putting aside his rather effeminate speech and mannerisms, his taste in music certainly raises questions. At one point his mother threatens to confiscate his Streisand collection.

The fine detail of The Incredibles‘ CGI is beyond Chicken, but it stands roughly even with the similarly cartoonish Madagascar. Although in one noticeable goof water drops from the school gym’s sprinkler system roll along the floor like marbles. The character design is a little bland apart from the endearing CL and mirror-shattering Abby.

The soundtrack breaks from the recent focus on 80s nostalgia to give us… 70s retreads, including Elton John’s positively vile “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” and the absurdly overexposed “I Will Survive.” Unsurprisingly it’s Runt who gets the most excited.

The modest and special features seem another indication that Disney didn’t expect to pull any of the older Pixar fan base. Kudos must be given though for supplying nearly theater ready deleted scenes, as opposed to the usual storyboards or animatics. Among these mostly nonessential clips the 2D animated storybook alternate opening is a visual treat, lovingly narrated by recently deceased Don Knotts, if understandably dropped for being too cutesy.

ImageNext up is the “Shake Your Tail Feather” video by vapid bubble gum group The Cheetah Girls, and three opportunities to revisit “One Little Slip” by Barenaked Ladies, a passable challenger for the ultimate CGI house band title long held by champion Smash Mouth.

After a brief stop at a dull quiz/memory game that may be a little tricky for its wee audience, we come to the fairly interesting making of documentary. It’s lightweight next to Brother Bear‘s treatment, but contains some neat insights such as former Disney CEO Michael Eisner’s decision to change CL’s gender because he believed small size is more of a challenge for a boy. Unfortunately Mrs. Eisner was not available for comment. The animators report that their intent was to emulate the exaggerated, cartoony movement of the classic Goofy shorts. I’d say mission primarily accomplished.

Like Madagascar, Chicken Little will handily entertain kids, but leave their chaperones desperately craving that certain something. Something that starts with “P,” and rhymes with… Caesar? Well, almost. Certainly more than Thousand Island.

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