“Ladies and gentlemen, it's just gibberish ... gibberish from an insane person!”
Loosely based on the American fairy story revolving around Chicken Little, or Chicken Licken as he was once known, and his anxieties over the sky falling in, Disney's new picture has a resolutely scatterbrained approach to its, admittedly, slight source material. A colourful, yet characterless, approach that saw the film do only moderately well at the box office, garner some largely indifferent reviews and incite the wrath of lot of, shall we say, grownup animation fans. In fact, I know quite a few people who openly ranted about this little film in much the same style of vitriol as those who denounced the Star Wars prequels. Quite frankly, this attitude stuns me. It seems that people are apt to forget just who the film was aimed at in the first place. And I'll give you a clue - if you can read what I've written so far, then Chicken Little wasn't aimed at you. So, for the sake of a more objective and altogether fairer review, I made sure to sit and watch this with my five year old and a couple of his mates, so that I could gauge their reactions and gain a fuller appreciation of what Disney, and director Mark (The Emperor's New Groove) Dindal set out to do, without the jaundiced view of a smug adult.
Yet, sadly, the results appear to have been exactly the same.
“Hit the pig, kids!”
Commencing with Chicken Little (Scrubs' Zach Braff) receiving the pivotal bump on the head from something that fell from the sky, the diminutive hero rings the warning bell of his hometown of Oakey Oaks and raises the alarm about the impending disaster. After all manner of chaos ensues, it soon becomes apparent to the townsfolk - all animals, of course - that nothing more than an innocent acorn was to blame for daydreaming Chicken Little's panic. But, despite the ridicule and humiliation that consumes his life for the next year, Chicken Little knows that a piece of the sky fell down that day. However, he makes every attempt to make up for the shame that he has brought upon himself and his single-parent father Buck Cluck (Garry Marshall) by training hard for sports in an attempt to get on the school baseball team and return some pride to the household. In a war of attrition and determination, he actually wins a place on the team - after some Rocky-style training montages - and finally gets his chance to step up to the plate in a do-or-die moment of what could turn out to be everlasting glory or eternal shame.
“The alarm bell's been activated - quick, get a camera crew!”
But before his unlikely success is allowed to go to his head, history just goes and repeats itself all over again when another hexagonal chunk of the sky comes a-calling. And pretty soon, Chicken Little and his friends, ugly ducking Abby (Joan Cusack), Runt Of The Litter (a grotesquely huge pig voiced by Steve Zahn) and the delightful Fish Out Of Water (Dan Molina bubbling his way from behind the deep-sea helmet his cute little fish wears) are off on a whirlwind adventure that sees them boarding a bizarre alien spacecraft, being chased all over the place by some tentacled invaders and then attempting to return an alien baby to its parents before Earth - well, Oakey Oaks at any rate - is obliterated. The sky, you see, was merely a cunning deception placed across the firmament by those pesky aliens ... and Chicken Little had been right all along in a sort of inverse Boy-Who-Cried-Wolf scenario.
“Other than the penny, the whole evening was a wash!”
It's all very slight and shallow and bears precious little similarity to the original fable, in which Chicken Licken, Turkey Lurkey and Goosey Loosey fall foul of the devious Foxy Loxey, but then even the revamping of the tale cannot bolster the threadbare ingredients of the story into anything other than the simple two-act play that it is. The two acts in this case being Chicken Little as baseball superstar, and Chicken Little as town saviour. The themes of bravery and courage, trying your best and believing in others as well as yourself are extremely heavily dealt, yet not really strong enough to sustain a film even as short as this. Moreover, the notion of a father being ashamed of, and even somewhat unsympathetic to, his son's plight, is actually a little clumsily handled. I should know, because in my reviewing experiment I had to try to explain to my three little viewing partners just why Chicken Little's Dad kept making him so sad. Disney normally excels at this type of thing. They know, instinctively, how to portray the family dynamic - whether that family is composed of people, animals, fish or aliens - but their presentation of a broken family unit here is a little suspect and its ambiguity unnecessary. Even Lilo And Stitch (which was a radical departure for the studio in terms of animation style and story theme that I, for one, actually loved) made a solid attempt to address the difficulties inherent within a dysfunctional home. And loss, shame and redemption have been explored successfully throughout Disney's movies since the studio's birth. But here, in Chicken Little, the broad-brushstrokes used to convey the father/son relationship reveal absolutely nothing about the inner workings of the two characters and just serve to throw too many questions in the air. The theme of the erstwhile-but-outsider son desperate to live up to his father's standards is extremely old hat in today's cinema, too. But the major sin the story commits is in not giving the young viewing audience a clear enough picture of what is at stake, or what is to be gained. Chicken Little is picked on - but not that badly. He hasn't got a mother anymore - but she is hardly ever referred to. His adventure makes a man of him - yet we barely notice the transition. The message about trusting people and following your own convictions and beliefs is, ultimately, lost on younger minds who normally absorb the sentimentality and the moralising amid the visual gobsmackery and the energetic lampoonery, without even realising that they are being taught a lesson.
Chicken Little fails on all these counts.
Oh, but there are good points, too. Some inventive visuals - the fishtank car, a barbell weighted with ring donuts and the frenetic crop-circle-chase - keep the eyes pleasantly diverted. The CG animation is captivating, although it is not in the class of Disney's dedicated wing Pixar. And there are occasional flashes of inspiration, such as the Mutton-language class (taught by Patrick Stewart's Mr. Woollenworth), the Men In Black cue-card holders and the Hate Mail indicator on the Buck Cluck's computer. And the “Big Voice” machine in the alien mothership is cool. That little hexagonal chunk of alien sky is neat device, too - a great slice of the surreal that, very fittingly, looks and acts out of this world. But the story feels so restricted that the imagination is never fully allowed to fly. Oakey Oaks is a strange little fantastical place, sort of like a Tim Burton town populated only by talking animals, but we never really feel any affection for it. Likewise, the characters who inhabit it. Chicken Little, himself, does manage the occasional tug at the heartstrings, however. But only visually. There are a couple of shots of him looking forlorn and isolated - sitting outside the teacher's office, or on the backseat of his dad's car, for instance - that are genuinely touching. But the big mistake the makers have made with such an unmistakably cute little feller is having Zach Braff provide his voice. It just doesn't suit his appearance at all. Braff's voice never seems to change emotion throughout the film, despite the ups and downs of Chicken Little's life and it just, well ... sounds too old for an adventurous young chicken.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I'm not gonna sugar-coat it - I've seen roadkill with faster reflexes!”
The score by John Debney is suitably boisterous, but takes a few too many familiar-sounding turns along the way - namely Alan Silvestri's rousing themes for the original Predator, and even James Horner's famous countdown cue from Aliens makes an all-too obvious appearance. And the songs pock-marking the film are something of an enigma, too. We have The Spice Girls “Wannabe” vying with Gloria Gaynor's “I Will Survive” in the party anthem stakes, taking the film completely out of the realm of anything their target audience might recognise. Mind you, this may, in fact, be a clever way to say that it just doesn't matter how much you pad a movie out with shoehorned-in pop ditties to help sell a soundtrack album - in only a couple of months even the most contemporary of tracks are going to be out of date, anyway. Certainly by the time the movie comes out on DVD. But, in this case, there seems to be a ugly struggle taking place between the film trying to be hip and savvy, and the makers' complete ignorance of how they should actually achieve such a state.
“We gotta get out of here ... it's like War Of The Worlds out there!”
There are a great many movie references sprinkled about the film, from Signs to Raiders Of The Lost Ark, from War Of The Worlds to E.T. Big Spielberg influence there, did you notice? But, even if these feel cosy and welcome to adult eyes, the kids in front of the screen probably won't pick up on them. Well, okay, my little feller did ... but then he lives with a movie obsessed DVD reviewer, so he hasn't got an excuse. The point being that such over-used sight gags barely raised a smirk on my face and just left my son's buddies blank-faced. A telling moment came when all three of the youngsters agreed that they'd seen this space-monster-chase-thing done a whole lot better in the cartoon Scooby-Doo And The Alien Invaders and I have to say that, barring some surprising carnage amid the final Spielberg-inspired invasion set-piece, they're right on the button. Even a last-minute snipe at Hollywood's penchant for cashing-in on real-life drama by completely bypassing the truth and rewriting history feels redundant and worn. A cliché in its own right.
No, I'm afraid that the naysayers may actually have been right about this one. Somehow, it consistently fails to connect. Entertaining enough to fill its meagre running time for a once-only viewing, Chicken Little still lacks the bite of a ketchup-dipped chicken nugget, leaving even the youngsters feeling undernourished and a little deflated. As a grownup, I found the film pretty lousy and unappealing - just as I'd been informed it would be. And, for the purposes of my little reviewing experiment, the kids voted with a resounding thumbs down, too. Even the likes of the naff Shark Tale seems positively sparkling with wit and energy after this.
Tepid stuff from Disney this time out, and it doesn't bode well for their conventional wing of creators, either. With this and Home On The Range and Brother Bear clogging up their recent history, the House Of Mouse needs a radical shake-up. CG animation is definitely best left in the more-than-capable hands of Pixar. This effort may look good on the kids' DVD shelf, but I doubt it will come down from there very often.
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