Monday, November 14, 2005

REVIEW: Chicken Little (2005)

The most interesting thing about "Chicken Little" are the circumstances of it's release and inception. When an animated children's film not only features a full-scale alien invasion, a baseball game and the inspired vocal-casting of Don Knotts as a turkey politician, that the Variety B-stories about the dealmaking of it's producers are of greater interest is a sign of serious malfunction.

In any case, the backstory here has been the how and the why of this property's journey from odd, jokey little project to Disney's megahyped and ballyhooed attempt to "prove" their ability to survive if and when the Pixar animation company strikes out on it's own. Now that the film can be seen, the results are indeed of some intrigue: Disney's solution to the problem of "how do we equal Pixar?" turns out to be... "we don't. Instead, we aim a little lower and just try to be "Shrek."

Honestly, aping Dreamworks Animation's VH1-ready cash-cow is more the Mouse House's speed at this point. The richness of story and character that Pixar is fueled by is an abstract, whereas "name-actor voicecast, top-40 pop tunes, winking jokes for the grownups" is something they can quantify numerically. Trouble is, for all their little irritations (reality TV humor, Ricky Martin tracks, etc.) the "Shrek" cycle so far has had a real humanity and sense of depth to it and Disney's films, for years now, have not. "Chicken Little" is no exception.

Storywise, the film is an almost surgically-precise gutting and reversing of the fable for which it's named. You'll recall that the story of Chicken Little involves a titular character who whips his animal friends into a frenzy in the belief that "the sky is falling," which leads to disaster. The moral is one of temperance and reason, a warning to it's young audience to be both wary of overreager doomsayers and careful not to become one themselves. There's not much room in there, of course, for Disney's mandatory slapstick and PC message-mongering, of course, so it had to go...

The movie's story goes like this: Chicken Little turns his town of Oakey Oaks upside down with his emergency warning that the sky is falling, but when no evidence is found to support him he becomes a ridiculed outcast. The hook (initially not a bad one at that) is that CL might be able to deal with this status, as we're told he was among the "nerd" set at school to begin with, but the fact that his father Buck Cluck did not rise in his support has crippled the poor kid's confidence and filled him with zeal to win back his father's affection. Complicating matters is that CL's mother has recently passed away, and the two men have been unable to fill the emotional gap a wife and mother's absence has left them. CL's pal Abby "Ugly Duckling" Mallard, a devotee of pop-psychobabble, "knows" that all will be solved if Buck and CL just open up to one another but... y'know, their men.

"You need to get closure" is hardly a quest to hang a movie on, granted, but this is at least character-oriented storytelling, so it'll do for a start. CL opts for the quick-fix of impressing his father, a former baseball champ, by joining the team himself. This works, in that it gets the two men talking... about baseball, yes, but at least talking. But then... another peice of the sky falls, and it looks like it's got friends. Thus begins a "surprise third act twist" thats been spoiled for you by all the trailers: The sky is falling, and it's the precursor to an alien invasion. Would this, I wonder, be the sort of circumstances that could... oh, I dunno... finally get CL and Buck to get "closure?" Cuz that would be sumthin'...

It's not a full loss. Some of the comedy works, and CL's troupe of friends in Abby, Runt and Fish-Out-Of-Water (read: geeky girl, fat kid, foreign kid, get it?) have their moments and theres cute touches going on in the art design (Buck and CL live in a two-story house... with a chicken-wire fence and sheet-metal roof) but theres not much to hold your interest. The gags aren't THAT funny, the character aren't very fleshed out... all the usual Disney issues of late. I wound up concentrating on the little things, like the novelty of the film's nominal non-alien baddie, a bully named Foxy Loxy, being a girl; or the sweet-natured evolution of Abby's romantic designs on CL (which he is, of course, oblivious to... or is he?)

But taken as a whole, it doesn't add up. This is a collection is sketches, vignettes and half-formed ideas, not a movie.

FINAL RATING: 4/10