Chicken Little

All of Disney’s hopes are riding on Chicken Little. It’s their first in-house computer animated film, and after the death of their 2D animation division, it represents the future of the Magic Kingdom. It’s not looking very rosy. If Chicken Little accomplishes anything, maybe it’ll be to force Disney into finding some way of getting back in bed with Pixar. Maybe this will be the thing that convinces Disney to give up their stupid Pixar-less Toy Story 3, maybe they’ll realize that they’ve lost whatever it is that made them the giant they once were and goddammit they need outside help. Or maybe they’ll ignore what’s actually up on the screen and content themselves with making money by releasing dozens of low quality Chicken Little sequels straight to video. Chicken Little is proof positive: Pixar has what it takes to make great family movies, Disney doesn’t. Give up, grab on to Pixar, and hold tight.

It’s not that Chicken Little is a bad movie, it’s just blithely mediocre. For a struggling, has-been giant like Disney, well that’s not good enough to pull them back from the brink. They needed something special here, not a moderately well animated movie with a script only marginally better than the travesty of Lilo & Stitch.

It might’ve helped if they’d picked a better fable. Let’s face it, after Snow White, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast, they’re running out of epic, classic children’s tales. Pocahontas was bad enough, but they’ve now fallen back on an ancient “Cry Wolf” knockoff featuring barnyard animals in place of real people. Maybe they should have gone with original (or in the case of The Lion King, stolen) material.

There’s nothing epic in the story of Chicken Little. I don’t think the size of the movie’s setting is the problem, after all Pixar made an epic family film out of the events happening to a few toys cooped up in a single room. But Chicken Little is very small both in scale and ambition. Chicken Little’s world feels confined. A little town, a ballpark, his bedroom, his school. It’s all familiar and hum drum. Their animators try to spice it up at first, with a few Flintstones-like touches. After all, this is a town inhabited entirely by animals. For instance on Chicken Little’s drive to school with his dad, instead of a traffic light they encounter a traffic-chameleon, who turns red when he wants to stop traffic, and green when it’s ok to go. But for some reason the movie doesn’t stick with it. By the end of the film it’s just a normal town with bi-pedal animals substituted for people. They have computers, cars, fire engines, pop machines, there’s nothing special about it. The animation style is a bit offbeat, but not enough that it gives the movie a look that’s terribly unique. In fact, you get the sense that the offbeat style is only a cover for the fact that Disney’s computer technology couldn’t manage something that looks more realistic.

The movie begins much like the classic Chicken Little fable we all know. A young cluck named Chicken Little (voiced by Zach Braff) sends the town into a panic when he claims that the sky is falling. The town is spectacularly unprepared for such a disaster, and in the ensuing chaos cars, homes, and businesses are destroyed. They soon discover, much to Chicken Little’s chagrin, that the sky isn’t falling and the destructive panic has been for nothing. His embarrassed father (Garry Marshall) tries to make excuses for him, and the two slink home in disgrace. A year later, Chicken Little is a pariah, a punch line, and he lives his life as a public outcast.

We know from the trailers that the payoff in all of this is that Chicken Little wasn’t wrong. The sky really is falling, in the form of cloaked alien invaders attacking the planet. That’s where the movie is going, but it takes an unbearable amount of time to get there. After a fast-paced beginning where Chicken Little’s humiliation flashes by at warp speed, the movie then mires itself in a sports related side trip, in which Chicken Little tries to re-earn his father’s respect by playing baseball. It’s such a boring cliché by now, the undersized underdog put in for the final pitch to win or lose “the big game”. What’s it doing in this movie? Isn’t the sky supposed to be falling? The baseball segment drags on forever, and at least half of the film is wasted on it in one way or another.

Once Chicken Little gives up the baseball thing and gets back to the point, it fares better. Chicken Little and his sidekick friends are well developed characters. He’s a loser, so he hangs out with his school’s other losers. Ugly Duckling (Joan Cusack), Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn), and a hilarious character that seems a lot like Kenny from “Southpark” (minus the frequent deaths) called Fish out of Water. The sky starts falling again, they investigate, and the last half-hour or so of the movie is a wild War of the Worlds parody.

Since this is a Disney movie, there’s also a big important moral lesson. It’s the basic theme of the entire thing. The problem there is that the big moral message is an astonishingly bad one. Chicken Little’s father tries to keep his son from repeatedly destroying the town, and then tries to save him from certain death. The movie then labels him as a “bad parent” and he redeems himself by letting Chicken Little endanger himself in ridiculously risky, poorly thought out ways. The message here is that parents should let their kids do whatever they want, no matter what the cost to themselves or society. Great idea Disney! Parents, the next time your kid tries to jump his bicycle over a Honda… believe in him.

It’s a shame too, because this is an animated movie with probably the best voice cast I’ve seen in years. Braff is adequate as Chicken Little, but Garry Marshall’s turn as both the movie’s narrator and the voice of Chicken Little’s father is a crowd pleaser. He’s folksy and warm, and perhaps the liveliest thing about the film. In smaller roles Chicken Little has the voices of Don Knotts, Steve Zahn, Patrick Stewart, Fred Willard, Harry Shearer, and Adam “Batman” West. This isn’t a case of a studio running out and getting big names for name recognition’s sake, but a case of them finding big names who also know how to give great vocal performances. But they don’t give us enough of them. Zahn has a pretty big role as Runt of the Litter, but the rest amount to little more than vocal cameos. If you’ve got Don Knotts in your movie, make the most of it. Don’t waste him.

I’m not saying that Chicken Little isn’t a decent enough family movie. But it’s not much more than decent either. This is another middle of the road Disney flick. There’s no revitalization for Disney’s animation domination hidden here. You won’t find an instant classic. This isn’t The Little Mermaid. That’s not good news for a studio trying to launch a new animation division based on this movie, not enough for a company like Disney that once had a stranglehold on the entire animation genre. Will they go forward from here? Unless they can get back Pixar, they don’t seem to have any choice. The question is, how much longer can Disney keep on cranking out barely adequate movies before we all wise up? CGI or traditional animation, it makes no difference. The problem with Disney’s modern movies is the stories, not the methods they use to bring them to life.