The Theory of Chaos

Monday, October 01, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Chicken Little

Originally published 11/5/05
Full review behind the jump

Chicken Little

: Mark Dindal
: Story by Mark Dindal and Mark Kennedy, Screenplay by Ron J. Friedman & Steve Bencich and Ron Anderson
: Randy Fullmer
Featuring the Vocal Talents of
: Zach Braff, Garry Marshall, Joan Cusack, Steve Zahn, Amy Sedaris, Don Knotts, Patrick Stewart, Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara, Wallace Shawn, Harry Shearer

Ten years ago
Chicken Little might have been really impressive – a whole feature film animated by the magic of computer! But the bloom has come off that pixilated rose now and we’re back to judging 3-D animation by the same standards as other movies. As in: does it entertain?

Back in 1989 when Disney Feature Animation experienced a renaissance of creative inspiration and financial success, it might have been because the movies had real scope and luscious artistry.
The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, this was about more than great songs, it was about the filmmakers treating the medium with respect and pushing the boundaries of what was considered possible. They didn’t need to announce a new era had begun – we could clearly see it had.

There’s an entirely separate column to be written about how that all crumbled between spiraling budgets, sped-up production, talent drain and what seemed like a corporate loss of confidence in hand-drawn work. It’s a shame, because I think some of these late-period 2-D pictures were among the most provocative and diverse – from the breezy
Lilo & Stitch, with its surprisingly complex heroine, to the bold retro adventure spectacle of Atlantis and the whimsical invention of Treasure Planet (which has some of the finest character animation you’ll ever see).

But now we have
Chicken Little, which Disney is breathlessly announcing as the heralding of yet another new era, right down to a mock-the-fairy-tale-conventions opening gag that would have been really fresh, say, five years ago, before Shrek. In this new era, instead of lush orchestrations we get off-the-shelf pop songs – Spice Girls? Really? In this new era there’s e-mail jokes and the hero says “Oh, snap!” In this new era the action of the story is shapeless, antic instead of exciting and desperate instead of irreverent. This feels less like a movie and more like a market positioning statement, and it’s lamer than New Coke. What was so shameful and uncool about the old Disney Animation that we have to suffer this shallow posturing?

In the fable of Chicken Little, our hero gets hit on the noggin, declares the sky is falling, and everyone panics because, well, they’re farm animals and they tend to act without much reflection. This movie knocks all that out before the title even flashes up on screen, as Chicken Little (Zach Braff) causes devastation and havoc all over the town of Oakey Oaks with his excitable decree.

About the town – I’m not opposed to farm creatures operating businesses and driving cars, but this little hamlet of theirs is unforgivably generic. It looks like they slapped together a virtual version of the Universal Studios standing backlot town square set and plugged a couple animal gags in. This sort of carelessness imbues the whole picture – except for an adorable little alien which is basically a tuft of orange fur with three eyeballs, I can’t think of one piece of design that reflected even minimal love or imagination.

Yes, there are aliens. Concisely undercutting the whole message of the fable, it turns out the sky really is falling – or rather, alien spaceships camouflaged to look like the sky are landing and dispatching tentacular machines in the countryside for unknown purposes. Can Chicken Little get the town to believe him again?

Sounds like a plot to me, but it takes awhile to even get to that. First we have a long stretch where Chicken tries to win back the approval of his father (Garry Marshall) by going out for the school baseball team. “Believe in me, Dad!” is as much emotional work as the movie feels like doing, since the Mom is conveniently dead by whatever means Disney snuffs out almost all its matriarchs. And it even cheats this, by only having Dad believe in him when overwhelming evidence makes any other stance impossible.

Meanwhile this whole act centered around baseball provides nothing but space for a couple of sports jokes and a training montage with Chicken’s friends Runt-of-the-Litter (a giant pig voiced by Steve Zahn), Abby Mallard (buck-toothed and moony-eyed, voiced by Joan Cusack), and Fish-Out-of-Water (who, with his head encased in a water tank, is unintelligible but plenty cheerful). It’s indicative of something when you have to pad a movie to get it to 80 minutes.

The cast earns some laughs off their talent alone, and director Mark Dindal is not without skill – he made the charming but little-watched Cats Don’t Dance and the whipsmart gag machine The Emperor’s New Groove. His all-thumbs sense of timing here is unaccountable – is it the switch to computers? The radically-reduced budget? Interference from above? Whatever the cause, and the thin screenplay doesn’t give him much to work with, what in the past has seemed effortless from him here seems impossible. Moments of cute and clever come only rarely and are quickly buried. We’ve seen the gag where the fat character gets stuck trying to fit through a small hole. You’d better bring something fresh to that chestnut, especially if you have the gall to use it twice in one movie.

This is what happens when you trade ambitious and inspiring for cheap and pandering. The end scenes of Chicken Little show our heroes sitting in a movie theatre, watching with rapt attention and cheering and laughing en masse. In the theatre where I watched, the boy in front of me kept fidgeting and turning around to stare thoughtfully at the back wall. Shame on him for not getting the message that this is a new era. Or maybe this was his way of showing that he did.


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