The Disney studios have made and will no doubt continue to make great children's animations, and the best of them have appealed to adults as well as to youngsters, things like "Snow White," "Pinocchio," "Fantasia," "Cinderella," "Lady and the Tramp," "Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid," and "Aladdin." But their 2005 release "Chicken Little" is mostly for the kids. Given its intended audience, it works well enough. However, this adult viewer was more than a little bored by it.
Interestingly and unaccountably, both of Disney's full-length cartoons for 2005 were CGI animations about small, young birds saving the day. You remember that in "Valiant" a pigeon joined the Royal Air Force during World War II and went on a daring mission. This time it's a chicken that delivers the world from a presumed impending peril. I preferred "Valiant."
The Wife-O-Meter didn't think the youngest of children would care much for the music in "Chicken Little," yet she didn't think children over nine would like the plot line much, either. In other words, she wasn't sure the film would appeal overmuch to any age group. But, as I say, it's mainly for the kids, music or no music.
The story opens in the peaceful hamlet of Oakley Oaks, where farmyard animals live a contented and pleasantly bucolic life. Here reside the Clucks, father Buck (voice by Garry Marshall) and son Chicken Little (Zach Braff). Buck was a big high-school athlete star; his son, in high school now, is something less than that, a fact that bothers Chicken Little and his dad quite a lot. The opening segment shows how a year earlier Chicken Little thought the sky was falling and rang the alarm bell, throwing everyone into a panic. The sky wasn't falling, and Buck was embarrassed for his son.
A year passes, and Chicken Little again thinks the sky is falling. Only this time, he's nearly right. A piece of an alien spaceship falls off and lands on his head. Like the rest of the spacecraft, the piece that hits him can replicate the scenery around it; it camouflages itself. Therefore, the spaceship itself can be hovering over a spot, and it would blend in with the sky and stars. Anyway, poor Chicken Little doesn't know what to do; he doesn't dare tell his father, because he's sure he won't understand or believe him. So he goes to his friends for help, Abby Mallard (Joan Cusack), an ugly duckling; Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn), an enormous young pig; and Fish Out of Water (Dan Molina), a "Nemo" type who lives on land with a helmet of water encasing his head. They encourage Chicken Little to ring the alarm bell, which he does, only to find that the spaceship has disappeared by the time the townsfolk get up to see it. Again, Chicken Little and his father are humiliated. But the thing is, the spaceship accidentally leaves one of its own children behind, sort of as in "E.T." The aliens come back looking for the child, and only Chicken Little can save the situation, or so it seems, when everybody in the community starts to panic.
Like it or not, I simply couldn't get worked up about a chicken as a hero. He's cute and he's loveable, like most of the characters in the film, but that's it. There's no edge to him; he's just sweet and misunderstood. The relationship with his father is predictable; his dad doesn't listen to him, and we can see where all that will go. The character voices are fine and recognizable--Don Knotts as the goofy Mayor, Turkey Lurkey; Patrick Stewart as the imposing teacher, Mr. Woolensworth; Wallace Shawn as the school's principal, Mr. Fetchit; Fred Willard as the alien dad, etc. But the voices have little to say, and beyond the voice recognition there's not much to appreciate.
The movie is filled with music, but it sounds like the sort of stuff that usually accompanies a Disney direct-to-video release, meaning that none of it is particularly memorable: "One Little Slip," "Stir It Up," "Shake a Tail Feather," and the like. Moreover, the simplicity of the CGI animation style, although entirely fitting the simplicity of the story, never generates much visual delight. It tends only to reinforcement the tedium of the proceedings.
There are cute, silly touches, to be sure, like a few peripheral gags about goat lawn mowers, but they are too reminiscent of "Monsters, Inc." and "Robots" to be effective, and there aren't nearly enough of them. Long stretches go by that are merely dull, a particularly maudlin moment accompanied by the song "All I Know" encouraging me to get and go to the bathroom. Speaking of which, the filmmakers include some mild bathroom humor and the obligatory kids' burp joke, but they aren't of much help and may only amuse the youngest audience members.
In the end, the film turns into a parody of "War of the Worlds," "Independence Day," "Signs," and "E.T.," and I wondered why either this hadn't been the tone of the film from the beginning, to catch the adult audience, or whether younger children would even see the connections. The closing movie-within-a-movie is clever, too, but it lasts only a minute.
Without enough verbal wit and with an overabundance of tired physical humor, "Chicken Little" seemed old hat to this adult reviewer. Yet, as I say, because of its winsome characters, it may appeal to the very young, whether they like the music or not.
An anamorphic (enhanced) widescreen transfer fills out a 16x9 television nicely, but the movie's original color palette, which tended toward light pastels, don't always show up as vividly as some other CGI animated cartoons. The hues are a trifle soft, and one notices a touch of grain in any number of scenes, also probably inherent to the master print. Otherwise, definition, detailing, and delineation are excellent.
As with most animated films lately, the sound sometimes steals the show, the audio mix pumping sound out of all five-point-one channels of a listener's Dolby Digital system. Ambient noises are especially well rendered, directional activity flourishing in all the surround speakers, while the front channels accommodate a wide stereo spread. Dynamics and frequency response are a little less spectacular, but they are adequate.
Because it's a brief film, about eighty-one minutes, there was plenty of room on the disc for a few extras. The first item is a series of five deleted scenes, about ten minutes' worth, that can played with or without introductions. The scenes themselves include several alternate openings and are done up in everything from storyboard sketches to completed form. Next of importance is a "making-of" documentary called "Hatching Chicken Little." It's about eighteen minutes long and divided into five chapters, covering the story creation, the character voices, the music, etc. It is mostly in fullscreen, and one may play the chapters all at once or separately.
Next up, we have "Where's Fish," an interactive trivia game, followed by two music videos: The Cheetah Girls doing "Shake Your Tail Feather" and Barenaked Ladies doing "One Little Slip." Then we get "One Little Slip" again as a karaoke and yet again as a sing-along. Finally, there are Sneak Peeks at nine other Disney family titles; twenty scene selections, plus a chapter insert; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
The easy pun is to say that Disney's animated output for 2005 was for the birds, but I'll resist. Let me just say, instead, that it's a good thing the Disney brass bought Pixar because they were having a hard time coming up with good CGI-animated features on their own.