It's sink or swim time for Disney. After enduring years of declining profits and management shake-ups—not to mention more stock market woes than Martha Stewart—the Mouse Corporation is releasing its first fully computer-generated feature cartoon made without the able assistance of Pixar. Having provided Disney with basically all of its unqualified successes in the last 10 years or so (Toy Story, Monsters Inc., The Incredibles), Pixar is now eager to dump the ungrateful Disney in favor of greener pastures and a bigger share of profits. Which leaves Disney in the unusual position of having to prove itself as an animation studio.
Disney tested the CG waters earlier this year, releasing the World War II pigeon film Valiant. Though that mediocre offering was a computer-generated cartoon, it did not originate with the Disney studio. It was a product of England's tiny Vanguard Animation and was merely distributed in the U.S. by Disney. In contrast, the long-touted toon Chicken Little is a Disney product through and through. And, though it can't quite be called a record-breaker in the 100-meter breaststroke, it does feature far more swimming than sinking.
Chicken Little (voiced by Zach Braff of “Scrubs”) is a cute but nerdy kid living in Oakley Oaks. In the grand Disney tradition, he's missing at least one parent. (Seems to me that, since the days of Bambi, Disney has offed more adults than the Khmer Rouge.) Our boy Little is being raised by his single father, Buck (movie producer/director Garry Marshall), a former baseball star who's rather disappointed in his son's unsportsmanlike tendencies.
One day, as the nursery rhyme tells us, Chicken Little gets conked on the head by what he believes to be a piece of the sky. Panic ensues after our pint-sized hero informs the entire town that the sky is falling. (A nice little metaphor for America's current culture of fear?) Unfortunately, when the dust settles, the sky has not collapsed, convincing the citizens of Oakley Oaks that Chicken Little was merely knocked loopy by one of the town's famous acorns. Sadly, even Chicken Little's father refuses to stand by him.
At least Chicken Little has got his friends, a motley crew of animal outcasts including the Ugly Duckling (Joan Cusack), the Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn) and the silent, scene-stealing (and rather literal) Fish Out of Water. Following his branding as the local kook, Chicken Little tries his best to earn back the respect of the town (and his father in particular) by becoming a champion baseball player. After a rather long setup, it is eventually revealed that Chicken Little may have been on to something with that whole “sky is falling” rant. Turns out our boy's bump on the head was the earliest foreshadowing of an imminent alien invasion.
Chicken Little is, like most modern cartoons, loaded with pop cultural references. Most of the ones on display here—jokes about disco, Barbra Streisand and a voice cameo by Adam West—will sail unnoticed over the heads of kids in the audience. No matter, the film builds up enough manic energy that wee ones will be entertained. In fact, when it's in all-out panic mode, Chicken Little is at its best.
Perhaps the oddest asides in this film are the nearly nonstop nods to director Steven Spielberg. Reverent references to Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. and War of the Worlds litter the script. Is Disney suddenly in the business of kissing up to Steven Spielberg? Well, it couldn't hurt.
Still, Chicken Little seems, at times, a bit too mired in its own “movieness.” Throw in bits of Signs, Independence Day, Field of Dreams and a Chicken Little movie-within-a-movie, and you've got a film that doesn't quite live and breathe outside of the cineplex. Hollywood filmmakers just need to get out more. Little details like a barber shop run by sheep or a turkey of a mayor voiced by Don Knotts are witty touches that give Chicken Little its charm and are the kind of thing Disney would do well to concentrate on in their next outing. After all, 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves didn't stand the test of time by making jokes about Irving Berlin and Judy Garland or by referencing My Man Godfrey and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, now did it?