Chicken Little Review
Somewhat loosely based on the story of Chicken Little, which has also been known as Chicken Licken or Henny Penny, this Disney feature opens with a panic as Chicken Little (Zach Braff) rings the bell above the town hall announcing that the sky is falling! The cinema clears in seconds, the water tank falls off its tower and demolishes large parts of the town and everywhere is heard, "Run for your lives!" as Chicken Little rings that bell. The small town of Oakey Oaks - home of the best acorns in the world! - hasn't known anything like it before and as some sense of quiet returns, they ask Chicken Little what's wrong. As they crowd around him, he tells them that a part of the sky fell on his head, it was hexagonal and...then an acorn falls from an oak tree and soon the whole of Oakey Oaks is laughing at that crazy little chicken. What really hurts is that, when he really needed him the most, Chicken Little's dad joins in.
One year later and Chicken Little is trying everything to forget what happened the day he thought the sky was falling but knows that he was right, something did hit him and it was no acorn. He plays dodgeball at school - sadly, he's only ever picked for the unpopular team - and he takes up baseball, the game that made his dad famous. In fact, he's not at all bad at it and his school actually win a game thanks to him, which he and his dad celebrate by putting the events of the previous year behind them. But just when it looks as though things between them are getting back to normal, a hexagonal shape, patterned to look like the night sky, falls down and in through his bedroom window. It's happening all over again...
Looking back, it was a major announcement when Disney issued a press release saying that following Home On The Range, all of their animated features would no longer be produced by traditional methods. Post-buyout of Pixar, that may well prove to be a decision that could be reversed, given that John Lasseter, who now has the title of Chief Creative Officer, and Pixar have already stamped their presence within the new Disney by halting production on Toy Story 3. Come the moment when Ed Catmull and Lasseter's feet are feeling that bit more comfortable under the Disney boardroom table, we may even be seeing the last of such poorly-constructed films as Chicken Little.
It's easy to imagine that spending time in the same room as the makers of Chicken Little would be exhausting, not only physically but also emotionally and mentally. Watching it through its short running time is like spending the afternoon at a children's birthday party, with the constant screeching of the cast not dissimilar to being surrounded by thirty five-year-olds under the influence of a cake-, coke- and Haribo-induced sugar rush. There's an impatience to the film that gets increasingly tiring and as it jumps through one climax and then another, the actual finale comes as something of a disappointment.
The likely problem with Chicken Little is that it comes from a fairy tale that's not in the premier league of fables. The original story is somewhat slight - Chicken Licken believes the sky is falling when an acorn falls on his head and as he warns everyone that he meets, including Turkey Lurkey, Goosey Loosey and, fatally for them, Foxy Loxey, who eats them all. The moral of the story is to be brave and that's certainly carried through to this film, as well as one that's directed at parents to listen to and to believe in their children. Here, Turkey Lurkey (Don Knotts) is the major of Oakey Oaks, Foxy Loxey (Amy Sedaris) is the school bully and Goosey Loosey (Mark Walton) is her hench-boy. Chicken Little's friends are, this time, the unpopular kids in the school - Abby (Joan Cusack) is an ugly duckling, Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn) is a fat pig barely able to see his rear trotters whilst the bubbles produced by Fish out of Water (Dan Molina) from within his helmet cannot be understood by anyone.
The main problem with Chicken Little is that it appears to have very little confidence in its own story. Its use of these characters, though necessary to bulk up a very slight tale, forces the story to jump through various pop-culture hoops, few of which are at all relevant to the story. As the film passes the halfway mark and Chicken Little learns that the sky really is falling, the precursor of an alien invasion, there are nods to ET, Signs and War Of The Worlds via an infant alien being left behind on Earth, by the aliens chasing Chicken Little through a cornfield and by the design of the tentacled beings. Like Shrek and A Shark Tale, there are more pop/rock songs than is really necessary - Gloria Gaynor's hen night anthem I Will Survive makes a particularly unwelcome appearance for no more reason, it would appear, that to justify the release of a soundtrack album, whilst Wannabe by The Spice Girls looks to have been left in here from an early draft of the story. Finally, an epilogue spoofing Hollywood's adaptation of true-life stories looks to be a better movie than that which has preceded it.
But it's in there that, if you're listening carefully, you'll hear the voice of Patrick Warburton and when you read that Chicken Little was directed by Mark Dindal, you'll wonder what has happened to the pair since The Emperor's New Groove, along with Lilo And Stitch and the underrated adventure Atlantis, one of the best of the recent Disney animated films. The adventurous sense of comedy that existed throughout ...Groove only makes occasional appearances here and only the aliens, who are a late but thoroughly welcome addition to the film, are a match for the likes of Krunk, Pacha and Kuzco. But aliens, pop songs, a baseball subplot and a spoof on Hollywood? It's really all too much, suggesting that Mark Dindal and Disney were well aware of the shortcomings of this story and were hoping that so long as there were enough visual gags, riffs on pop culture and frenetic action, that no one, least of all easily-impressed kids, would notice. Although, as anyone with children will attest to, kids aren't that easily entertained, with Chicken Little smacking of filmmaking by committee, with executives scouring the Disney archives for classic pop tracks that can be leveraged into the plot, no matter how uncomfortable the fit.
It's likely that Chicken Little was used by both Disney and Pixar in their recent negotiations - were it a success, Disney would have had more power in their dealings with Pixar whilst, had it bombed, Pixar would have been looking at a extracting as much out of Disney as they could have done. In the event of its release, Chicken Little did well but clearly not well enough as Disney still decided that acquiring Pixar remained in their long term interests. It's easy to see why - Chicken Little has much in common with what you'd expect of Disney but lacks the story writing sass of Pixar. Various characters come and go in different guises but few of them actually matter, a world away from the careful plotting of Finding Nemo, The Incredibles or the Toy Story films. In the end, the CG origins of Chicken Little looks to be more a case of Disney chasing the technology rather than realising its screen writing skills are a touch rusty and whilst Pixar may bring its Renderman technology with them, far more important will be their ability to tell a story, something that, at the moment, they remain masters of.
Chicken Little doesn't look bad but it's of a type with such recent animated films from Disney as Treasure Planet and Home On The Range. There's none of the pin-sharp detail of Robots or The Incredibles but the colours are rich and with a look closer to Fisher-Price than the superhero stylings of Brad Bird's latest, such smooth renderings are only to be expected. The transfer isn't at all bad but isn't one that stands out. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is a complementary one to the picture in that it's barely noticeable most of the time, only really coming to life with the arrival of the aliens halfway through the film. From that point on, the rear channels and the subwoofers are used heavily but never overwhelmingly so, more in such a way that suits the film.
Deleted Scenes: The opening narration by Buck Cluck, Chicken Little's father, with its nod to the sunrise over Africa of The Lion King, isn't a bad way to begin an animated film but two others were also considered - Chicken Little Storybook (2m50s) and Cooking With Klaus (6m10s), neither of which is the equal of what made it into the final version of the film. There's also a couple of stray scenes from later in the film - Chicken Little As A Girl (2m05s) and Lunch Break (2m00s) - but given that much could have been cut from the film and wasn't, these aren't much missed. These Deleted Scenes are a mix of completed animation, animatics and storyboards but the voice tracks are complete and Randy Fullmer and Mark Dindal offer an optional introduction, which is actually better than any of the Deleted Scenes that follow.
Music and More: ...or actually just music given that this section only includes two videos - one from The Cheetah Girls (Shake Your Tail Feather, 3m05s) and the other from The Barenaked Ladies (One Little Slip, 2m50s) - and a Chicken Little Karaoke/Sing Along, which sounds like a very slim interpretation of the 'More' of the title. The only difference between the Karaoke and the Sing Along is that on one, there's no lead vocal whilst the other has one that you can sing along with.
Where's Fish Trivia Game: Narrated in the style of the baseball game, this mixes a memory game as Fish vanishes from the screen with a trivia game based on questions from the film. There doesn't actually appear to be any reward for getting everything right, more that it just keeps on going until it runs out of questions. Or that whoever's playing it runs out of patience.
Making of Chicken Little (18m05s): Randy Fullmer and Mark Dindal are back to introduce this feature on the making of Chicken Little, covering all parts of the production that you might expect - the technology, the voice talent and the music (no Spice Girls reunion, unfortunately) - before ending with a day in the life of Mark Dindal, the film's director.
Finally, there are trailers for the DVD release of The Little Mermaid, The Wild, Dumbo SE, Airbuddies, That's So Raven, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, Howl's Moving Castle, Brother Bear 2 and Cars.
Unlike the best of Disney, Chicken Little doesn't look as though it will be particularly fondly remembered years, never mind decades, from now. When it arrived in cinemas with even its musical and visual gags out of date - Wannabe really belongs in a film from the last decade whilst the Raiders gag won't connect with anyone under the age of seven or eight - there's nothing that any amount of CG trickery could do for it.
Not even the DVD is particularly special, being the sort of mix of features that will be familiar to owners of the Treasure Planet and Home On The Range DVDs, films that won't ever get a Special Edition. All one can do is to wait for Disney to begin producing films once again that are worthy of standing alongside their classics, hoping that the sooner Lasseter and Catmull feel settled, the sooner the Pixar influence will be felt.