Chicken Little (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

With Chicken Little, Walt Disney's in-house animation department has made the transition from hand-drawn to computer-drawn imagery. As debuts go, this is not a stellar one. It is bogged down by many of the problems that have plagued Disney's recent traditional animated features: anonymous voice work, poor plot structure, and the mistaken belief that the Disney brand will elevate anything to a "must see" level for viewers starved for family friendly fare.

If there's a bright side to Chicken Little, it's that kids will love it. This is a classic "children's movie," meaning there's an inverse ratio between age and appeal (the lower the age, the higher the enjoyment quotient). To the filmmakers' credit, they try to shoehorn in some "adult" material (and I don't mean that in a prurient sense) - pop references kids won't get, occasional moments of sly wit, and a few vocal cameos. On the whole, the movie left me less entertained than I expected to be. But there's no doubt the under-10 members of the audience loved it. As a result, Chicken Little falls into the category of movies to attend with children, but to avoid (at least in theaters) if you're an adult unencumbered by a pint-sized companion.

Chicken Little takes a shot at seeming hip and fresh, but it's the kind of hipness one gets from a bunch of grown-ups trying to use the lingo of juveniles - vaguely embarrassing. Familiar pop tunes are force-fed to the audience, relieving the filmmakers of the responsibility of generating any new musical numbers. (Are the lyrics of "If You Wanna Be My Lover" appropriate for a G-rated movie?) All of these things feel much like attempts to ratchet up the film's level of accessibility to younger viewers. Just plain "computer animation" apparently is no longer seen as an impressive enough attraction. Shrek may have started this, but the filmmakers at Dreamworks made it seem effortless; Disney's efforts are awkward at times.

The story is simplistic. Chicken Little (voice of Zach Braff) becomes infamous when he creates a panic by claiming that "the sky is falling." It turns out to be a false alarm caused by an acorn. A year later, after spending countless hours trying to bond with his father, Buck Cluck (Garry Marshall), Chicken Little has a close encounter of the third kind. Alongside him are his three best friends: Abby Mallard (Joan Cusack), the ugly duckling; Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn), an obese pig; and Fish Out of Water (Dan Molina), a walking fish wearing a diver's helmet. An invisible spaceship is parked above the town hall, possibly heralding an alien invasion. But when Chicken Little tries to alert the residents to the threat, he is regarded as the bird who cried wolf.

One aspect of the film that will play better to children than adults is the father/son bonding that occurs between Chicken Little and Buck Cluck. This subplot is scripted in an obvious manner. Buck's transformation is meant to give Chicken Little an emotional impact, but it will only work for those who like characters' feelings to be painted with wide brush strokes. I realize this is not supposed to have the character development of a French drama, but this sort of thing was once Disney's strong suit (think back to movies like The Little Mermaid and The Lion King). Here, it is done in a perfunctory manner. But it will hit home with the target audience.

The voice work is disappointing. None of the leads, excepting perhaps Joan Cusack, leaves an impression. Zach Braff (of TV's Scrubs) presents as bland and unimaginative a "plucky" lead character as we have seen in recent animated movies. (Chicken Little was originally supposed to be played by Holly Hunter, until Michael Eisner decided that a sex change was needed. Little boys don't like seeing animated movies with little girl leads, or so common wisdom dictates.) The cameos from Patrick Stewart, Don Knotts, Patrick Warburton, and Adam West (doing a William Shatner impersonation?) are noteworthy, and it says a lot that these are the voices one remembers after the movie is over, even though none of them has more than a handful of lines.

Visually, Chicken Little doesn't offer anything special. Seemingly designed to look a little like a computerized version of Looney Tunes, the movie lacks the meticulous detail of many of its contemporaries. (The pioneering Toy Story, now 10 years old, looks better.) The backgrounds appear static and the main characters are designed to seem more like cartoon creations than the "humanized animals" of many recent computer animated movies. Some of that is unquestionably a conscious stylistic choice, but the movie still looks cheap at times. (Note: I am told the digitally projected 3-D version of this film is quite spectacular from a visual standpoint, but only a small percentage of viewers will see the film in that format.)

Director Mark Dindal's previous movie was The Emperor's New Groove, and he brings the same genial tone to Chicken Little. The movie is funny at times, although most of the successful humor occurs during the final half-hour. It's odd that Disney should have so much riding on a project that is, cinematically speaking, a lightweight. The bar for animated films has been falling this year (Corpse Bride and Wallace and Gromit, both stop-motion pictures, head 2005's class), and Chicken Little does nothing to raise it. If Disney is again going to rise to the top of a genre they ruled for decades, they're going to have to do better than this. There's nothing in Chicken Little that should cause concern for either Dreamworks or Pixar.

Chicken Little (United States, 2005)

Director: Mark Dindal
Cast: (voices) Zach Braff, Garry Marshall, Joan Cusack, Steve Zahn, Amy Sedaris, Wallace Shawn
Screenplay: Steve Bencich, Ron J. Friedman
Music: John Debney
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Run Time: 1:20
U.S. Release Date: 2005-11-04
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1