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Chicken Little

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/27/05 20:13:19

"You can't beat the master - which is no longer Disney."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Disney is following now. It's a sad state of affairs, when you think about it; a bit over a decade ago, other studios were forming animation departments in the hopes of cashing in on the success of Disney features from "The Little Mermaid" to "The Lion King". They didn't succeed until they stopped trying to out-Disney Disney, and now, in the wake of that success, we get "Chicken Little" - a kind of sad attempt by Disney to beat DreamWorks at their own game.

It's all there - a CGI world designed to mimic present-day America (except with barnyard animals), a celebrity voice cast, a soundtrack that's a mishmash of pop songs from different eras, and a string of pop culture references masquerading as jokes. If you stripped the vanity card off the front, what's the actual difference between this and Robots or SharkTale? Not much. A certain part of me says that's okay, that Disney doesn't have to be special, but if a movie is going to aim to tread familiar ground rather than be different, it should at least tread that familiar ground nimbly, and this is something Chicken Little fails to manage.

The story starts with Chicken Little (voice of Zach Braff) inciting a panic in his hometown, claiming that the sky is falling. A year later, he's infamous for this, with only the school's other outcasts as friends - "ugly duckling" Abby Mallard (voice of Joan Cusack), overweight Runt of the Litter (voice of Steve Zahn), and pantomiming Fish Out of Water. He tries to redeem himself, but no dice, and when a second piece of the sky bonks him on the head, he thinks maybe he should keep quiet, at least until he and his friends figure out what is up.

It's a serviceable enough story, and the four credited writers (plus, I assume, many more) and director Mark Dindal sprinkle it with some fun visuals and design - I like the chicken-coop steps that lead up to the title character's home and his dad's garage, along with the gigantic diving helmet that Fish wears to keep from suffocating in the in the open air. The setting naturally leads to some cute plays on the characters' various species - G-rated bits that kids will think is really clever and that will make grownups chuckle at their innocent obviousness. When Chicken Little is a kids' movie, not really worrying about how it works for those with double-digit ages, it kind of works.

But did Shrek make all that money by being a kids' movie? Oh, no. So, we get a bunch of pop songs inserted as background music, and jokes about things like Runt liking Barbra Streisand that just fall over dead. I know animated films take a long time to produce, but that's been a lame joke for a long, long time, and why would kids find it funny in the first place? It's just a random name to them (and is a Disney animated film the best place to make jokes about someone being mocked for liking something considered kind of square?). I was actually kind of hopeful at the start, because the title song was a new one from Barenaked Ladies, whose ability to make silly and catchy but clever pop tunes makes them a good fit for this sort of material. That's the last original and the last one that really fits the action (R.E.M.'s "The End of the World as We Know It" is kind of too obvious). Everything else was recycled and not terribly adventurous.

I also found it to be kind of a peculiar choice to have the main cast all be school-age kids but mostly cast adults, and not even in a "grown woman playing a young boy" way. These kids are being played by people in their twenties and thirties, and that is combined with characters of different species not being at the same scale and a tendency to write them like small adults: Abby is constantly urging Chicken Little to "confront the problem" and "get closure" with his father, and it tends to make me ask, do even very precocious ten-year-olds talk like that? Or are these characters meant to be teenagers? Or in junior high? Because they're all over the map from the way they act. (And that both prominent girl characters sort of have their assertiveness sucked out of them at the end is somewhat disquieting.)

Still, I can't deny that the film does some impressive work visually. The characters are as furry and feathery as one could hope for with the amount of processing power Disney had available to throw at the picture. What most impressed me was where they recognized what could be gained by giving realism and detail a pass, though: The aliens in the end are fuzzy and three-dimensional, but their eyes tend to swim around their heads seemingly untethered in a way generally more associated with cel-based animation than digital. The characters' discovery of the alien spaceship does kick the movie up a notch, giving Fish a chance to do some funny pantomime while letting the animators get a bit wilder creatively - and I'm never going to complain about a little disintegration-ray humor.

Incidentally, this is one of the few times I've found digital projection to be truly impressive, mostly for how the 3-D is handled. The picture is leaps and bounds better than the red/blue system used for the likes of Spy Kids 3-D, clear and sharp enough to rival the old Natural-Vision pictures and be talked about in the same sentence as IMAX 3-D. I was even able to tilt my head without the picture getting blurry. The only apparent downside to the system Dolby Labs developed is that the polarized glasses seem to block a lot of light; the peeks I sneaked at the screen with glasses up showed a very bright picture.

I'm torn on "Chicken Little". The tech-nerd part of me is very impressed with the digital 3-D presentation, and the animation fan sees signs that the move away from pen-and-ink doesn't yet seem to indicate that Disney's animators are losing their ability to create distinctive visuals. The formulaic and glib execution of the story, though, just failed to excite me, and I hope this isn't a sign of what's to come: Just as the other studios found they couldn't beat Disney at their own game, Disney isn't going to beat DreamWorks at theirs, and the 3-D digital projection won't be an exclusive edge for long.

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