Let’s Stay Together

Salt Lake City Weekly | October 31, 2005
Like many Disney films over the years, Chicken Little is a message movie. And the message is this: “Hey, Pixar, we’ll show you that we don’t really need you!”

The breakup between the Mouse House and the creators of Toy Story and The Incredibles may not be complete--indeed, new management at Disney has recently seemed to offer hope of an extended partnership--but you’d never know it. Disney is behaving like a dude who’s trying to make his ex jealous, trotting out the hottest arm-candy he can find when he knows she’ll be around. Chicken Little--Disney’s first attempt at in-house CGI animation in the Pixar mold--sometimes feels less like a movie than part of a strategy to get back together.

It doesn’t begin that way. The film begins with a lively pop as a re-imagining of the storybook tale about the tiny fowl (voiced by Zach Braff) who caused a panic by screaming that the sky was falling. Here he’s just a school kid in the animal-populated town of Oakey Oaks, and--a year after his infamous false alarm--he’s still trying to live down the infamy. His fellow outcasts Abby “Ugly Duckling” Mallard (Joan Cusack) and the massive piglet Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn) have his back, but everyone else thinks he’s a loser--even, in his own way, Chicken Little’s dad (Garry Marshall).

It’s a fun set-up, largely because director Mark Dindal (The Emperor’s New Groove) and his screenwriting team refuse to turn Chicken Little into a character that thinks of himself as a loser. A great early sequence finds the plucky protagonist making his way to school through a series of obstacles, his ingenuity extricating him from dilemma after dilemma. Braff’s vocal performance lends the character soul, but from the outset he’s got an unusually complex dimension: He’s a boy trying to redeem himself and hold onto his self-confidence while he feels it slowly being chipped away.

The character work and subversive humor are rolling along for nearly half the film--until suddenly everyone involved is overwhelmed by the desire to create an action blockbuster. The sky really is falling, it turns out; aliens in a cloaked spaceship are descending on Oakey Oaks, emerging as War of the Worlds-style tentacle-legged robots that threaten with lasers, whirring sawblades and other toddler-frightening appendages. Everything in Chicken Little gets faster, louder and scarier--and, with its chases and set pieces, feels more and more like something trying to out-Pixar Pixar.

Instead, it just begins to feel more calculated all around. The cutesy, furry alien baby that ultimately befriends Chicken Little looks like a character created solely to sell toys. The single-parent relationship rears its head yet again in Disney World. And the be-yourself, accept-me-for-who-I-am lessons have a similar wearying familiarity, made even harder to swallow when the emotional climax depends on the acting talents of Garry Marshall (!).

Perhaps Chicken Little seems more disappointing because it showed such potential to set itself apart from the gear-grinding machinations of other Pixar wannabes. There’s a unique slant to the art design--quite literally, as the backgrounds are filled with cartoonishly off-kilter angles rather than the clean real-world lines of most computer-animated fare. And Disney has given us what is quite clearly the first closeted pre-adolescent in animated film history--since that would be the only explanation for making such a point of Runt’s fondness for Barbra Streisand and disco-era chestnuts.

But Chicken Little couldn’t just be distinctive; it had to be impressive. It had to include furious, frantic action, even if it meant wrenching the story from its foundation as compelling picture of youthful anxiety. Pixar’s genius has always been the ability to integrate its strong stories with its humor and adventure; Chicken Little merely slaps them together side-by-side, hoping we won’t notice. If that’s the date Disney’s bringing to the prom, Pixar doesn’t have nearly enough to be jealous about.


**1/2 (two and a half stars)

Voices by Zach Braff, Joan Cusack, Steve Zahn

Directed by Mark Dindal

Rated G

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