Reel Opinions

Friday, November 04, 2005

Chicken Little

If Chicken Little was a smaller film, and had less riding on it, it at least could be brushed off as passable yet forgettable. Unfortunately, it is not a small release. This is supposed to be the film that brings Disney back into the limelight after a series of big budget disappointments and disposable direct to video junk getting big screen treatments. This is supposed to be the film that proves they still have what it takes to enchant audiences. Well, I'm sorry to say this, but if this is the best they can do, maybe they deserve to be outclassed by Pixar. Chicken Little is immediately forgettable, fluffy, no thrills filmmaking that will appeal only to small children who will like the bright colors and silly characters. Any animation fan over the age of 10 will probably be fidgeting in their seat by the 45 minute mark, waiting for something to happen. Director Mark Dindal (the far superior spoof The Emperor's New Groove) has all the right materials, but doesn't know how to put them together in a successful way.

The story picks up one year after Chicken Little (voiced by Zach Braff from Garden State) caused mass hysteria in his quiet little town when he claimed the sky was falling and hit him on the head. When his claims appeared to be untrue, he became the joke of everyone, and humiliated his father, Buck Cluck (voiced by filmmaker Gary Marshall), who has been struggling to raise the tiny poultry on his own ever since his wife passed away under circumstances not explained by the film. (I kept on coming up with various chicken-related deaths for her in my mind, my favorite being convicted of a crime and getting the death penalty by means of a deep fryer.) Since that fateful day, Chicken Little has been trying to put the past behind him, but it's not easy when everyone ridicules him except for his small circle of misfit friends - The "ugly duckling" Abby Mallard (Joan Cusack), pop-music quoting overweight pig, Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn), and the mute Fish Out of Water, who walks around on dry land with a helmet full of water over his head.

Little is constantly trying to win back the respect of his father and the entire town, and decides his best shot is to try out for the baseball team, and show up his rival, the popular and bullish tomboy, Foxy Loxy (Amy Sedaris from TV's Strangers With Candy). When Chicken Little unexpectedly winds up winning the big game, he becomes the town hero. He has little time to savor his victory, however, when what seems to be another piece of the sky comes falling in through his bedroom window. Turns out, it's a piece of a spaceship that can cloak itself to anything to disguise its appearance. Little and his friends uncover a potential alien invasion of Earth, and must warn the town. Of course, given the poultry's past reputation, no one believes him at first. The tiny hero must find a way to convince his father and everyone that he's not a joke, and that the danger is real.

The above synopsis and the film's ad campaign would lead you to believe that Chicken Little uses the classic story as a leaping point for a sci-fi spoof. You, however, would be mistaken, as the entire plotline about the aliens takes up maybe 40% of the film. Most of the running time is devoted to dysfunctional family schlock aimed at kids. This wouldn't be so bad if the filmmakers and animators tried to do something original with the material, but they keep on hitting the same notes over and over again in every scene. "Why isn't my father proud of me?" "Why don't people like me?" By the time the aliens finally show up, you feel like you've been stuck in an endless therapy session with the little bird. Here is a movie that promises us aliens, and gives us the mundane instead. I am reminded of the awful live action family film, Jack Frost, with Michael Keaton. That was a movie about a father who didn't have time for his family, died, and was reincarnated into a talking snowman thanks to the power of a magical harmonica. The filmmakers filled the movie with the impossible like talking snowmen and magical instruments, and decided to instead focus solely on the mundane and ordinary like snowball fights with bullies and hockey games. Chicken Little is guilty of the same crime. Here is a movie that promises us a sci-fi spoof, and instead gives us a dysfunctional father-son relationship and baseball games. What's funny is that the movie actually features a hilarious send up of overblown Hollywood sci-fi films late in the film. This is the best scene in the movie, least of which because of the hilarious cameo by Adam West as the hero. Perhaps if Chicken Little had taken the path that it is ridiculing at this point, it could have been a much more entertaining film.

However, the screenplay is desperate and dull. Instead of making us care about the characters, it references movies that have been parodied too many times before (King Kong, Star Wars), and gives us characters we care little about because they are so vastly underwritten. Chicken Little comes across as more annoying than likable, and the miscast Zach Braff does very little to help matters. He's passable, but somehow his voice never seemed to fit the character, and none of his jokes hit. The character constantly mopes and whines about his situations through most of the film, and by the time he finally gets a backbone and becomes a hero, you really could care less. Equally underdeveloped is his relationship with female lead, Abby Mallard. She's supposed to be the shy love interest, but because their relationship is never developed in any way, their hooking up at the end seems forced and does not register any emotion. Joan Cusack does what she can with her role, but since she mainly acts as a source of dispensing advice for the hero, she never gets a chance to truly come into her own. Instead, the film decides to focus on the obnoxious comic relief, Runt of the Litter, who due to the fact that he constantly quotes pop songs and movie lines in his dialogue, may as well have been called "Pop Culture Pig". It's bad enough that the movie has numerous music montages set to pop songs (at one point, they literally have two right after another without anything in-between), but do we need a character who speaks pop songs in his dialogue?

Okay, so we've got a mundane plot and an uninspired script. What's strike three for Chicken Little? The uninspired character designs. If this was a lesser studio, I might have been able to forgive it, but come on! Disney can do better than this! Chicken Little himself seems to be more than a little bit inspired by a minor Looney Tunes character named Egghead who appeared in a couple Foghorn Leghorn cartoons. I'm not saying he's a blatant rip off, but I definitely think whoever designed him had that character in mind. There is not one single appealing or original design in this movie. All the characters look generic or uninspired. The biggest offense are the aliens themselves, who look like Furby toys crossed with the hair of a Troll doll. If that doesn't scream corporate influence, I don't know what does. I'm sure they'll look cute as stuffed toys hanging on the hooks of your local Disney Store, but as character designs for an animated feature, they stink. I could name about a hundred other cartoon characters who look more appealing than the entire cast of Chicken Little. I said it before, and I'll say it again - If this is the best Disney can do, they deserve to be outclassed by Pixar.

Is there anything to salvage from the wreckage of this failed attempt at a family classic? Well, aside from the previously mentioned sci-fi spoof scene, the only character who made me crack a smile was the mayor of Little's town, Turkey Lurkey. As voiced by Don Knotts, Turkey Lurkey is one of the few characters in the film who is actually funny. Yeah, the joke of an elected official not being able to make decisions on his own has been done to death, but hey, it still works, and Knotts is immensely likable in the role. Plus, it's always nice to see him in another Disney project. Too bad they couldn't get Tim Conway to do a voice as well. The film also has a clever moment early on where they tie in actual footage of Raiders of the Lost Ark into the movie. Other than these fleeting moments, I cannot think of one single worthwhile moment.

Chicken Little is a small and forgettable little film that has too much riding on it. The thing is Disney seemed to know it, and they did not do enough to truly stand out from the increasingly crowded computer animation field. Disney used to be innovators, setting bench marks for the industry. With this film, they seem to be content to follow the mob, as this movie seemed to be more than a little inspired by some of Dreamworks' efforts. My question is why? Why try to do what everyone else is doing? Pixar is successful because they do something completely different each and every time. I'm not saying they should copy Pixar, I'm just saying Disney really needs to rethink their strategy. I'm sure Chicken Little will hit it big with the under 10 hit (one little girl walking out of the theater said she couldn't wait to see it again), but if they think this is going to re-establish them as a force in the industry, they're dreaming.

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