Pardon what I hope will be the only livestock-related pun in this review, but Disney is pretty much betting the farm with its latest animated feature, the CGI Chicken Little. The company’s falling-out with Pixar doesn’t bode well for either group. Pixar’s storytelling ability has been Disney’s saving grace in recent years, and there’s nowhere for Pixar to go that would give them as much leverage as the Disney tie-in. In addition, Chicken Little is the first widely released digital 3-D feature, playing in the special format on 84 screens nationwide (check here for a list of 3-D theaters). I was fortunate enough to see the film in digital 3-D, which made it as much an event as an actual film. And that’s ultimately the bad news: Without the added gimmick of seeing it in 3-D, there’s nothing in Chicken Little to distinguish it from any other computer-animated film aimed at kids but crammed with jokes and allusions for adults. Because of that, yes, it’s drawn comparisons to Shrek, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Director Mark Dindal has experience with animated features; his The Emperor’s New Groove, also a Disney film, while certainly not great, still had a few laughs, thanks to the interplay between David Spade’s trademark snarkiness and John Goodman’s reliable straight man. Similarly, Chicken Little has more than enough humor to entertain the parents in the audience. For instance, when Chicken Little and the other kids at his middle school play dodgeball in gym class, the coach instructs them to split into teams of “popular versus unpopular.” (Chicken Little seems to be pretty obviously molded on Jonathan Lipnicki circa Jerry Maguire; after all, nothing makes a tiny kid cuter than fitting him with oversized glasses, right?) In fact, for the first half-hour, the film plays like a straight story about an outsider and his group of misfit friends, among them Ugly Duckling (Joan Cusack), Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn), and Fish out of Water (indecipherable gurgles provided by Dindal). The casting, including Garry Marshall as Chicken Little’s father, is excellent. As the title character, Zach Braff channels the higher-pitched glee that he uses in the voice-overs on those toilet paper commercials, and the underappreciated Zahn provides some solid comic relief as the sidekick that, in a teen or adult comedy, would be openly gay, but whose issues here are merely hinted at (Streisand albums, lip-synching the Spice Girls, etc.).
The plot, about as thick as most Disney fare, revolves around Chicken Little’s famous warning that the sky is falling, which turns him into the town laughingstock. A year later, he’s trying to move on from the incident, considerably harder to do since billboards around town announce the impending arrival of a movie based on the incident, just another random metafictional twist to the story meant to make it stand out (the film’s opening briefly parodies The Lion King, as well). But just as Chicken and Pop are ready to move on, the sky starts falling again, and it turns out to be aliens (popular theme this year). Chicken and pals have a brief run-in with the invaders, whose octopedal robots look awfully familiar. So it’s up to Chicken Little and his friends to solve the crisis, and Chicken Little also uses the opportunity to try and bond with his father.
The fractured relationship of father and son drives the story but, thanks to some forced plotting and rote character development, it doesn’t quite ring as true as, say, the family dynamic of The Incredibles. But Dindal is hoping that the whiz-bang effects and 3-D flash are enough to distract from the fact that there’s not much substance here. The rise of computer animation is blamed for the death of Disney’s hand-drawn stories, but that’s not entirely accurate. It’s the stories that stopped being good, not the medium. If Home on the Range had been done with pixels instead of paint, it still would have been a disappointing movie. And this is why Pixar has been so successful. It’s not because of the medium, certainly; the grade-school fans of Toy Story probably don’t sit around and discuss the effects of advancing digital technology on the future of animation. No, the Pixar films have more engaging stories, even if their plots, like Toy Story, are often just as forced as Disney’s other modern works. The characters and their situations were what made those films so good, especially The Incredibles, which benefited from the guiding hand of Brad Bird (The Iron Giant).
Ultimately, Chicken Little wants to be as funny or cute or emotionally resonant as it thinks it is, but it falls shy of the mark. Although it’s slightly above par for a Disney outing, it’s still not quite as entertaining as other children’s films. The studio used to have a legacy of producing films that families could repeatedly enjoy, but now they’re just churning out cookie-cutter product with a few winks at the grown-ups, as if to say they’re above it all. But wasn’t the point to create good stories, not subtly mock them? I can’t see clearly anymore; these 3-D glasses are in the way.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.
Chicken Little / Daniel Carlson
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()