The heat is on Disney. Since Pixar, the company that brought us the two Toy Story movies, A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, ended its alliance with the entertainment giant, the big question has been, "Can Disney turn out high-quality computer-animated fare without the Pixar whiz-kids?"
The answer appears to be, "No," or at best, "Not yet," based on Chicken Little, Disney's first in-house all-CG animated feature. The cartoon has some clever moments, but most of its 81 minutes are terribly, terribly ordinary.
Why can't Disney do what Pixar does? Here's why. When Monsters Inc. hit big in 2001, Pixar realized they had a winning formula and that bothered them. "You could smell it," Andrew Stanton, director of Finding Nemo, told Entertainment Weekly. "We could see exactly how we could make the same picture again and again from now on. And the fact that we could even smell it meant we should be concentrating on how we make sure that doesn't happen."
Disney has not had a similar epiphany. Chicken Little strains to appear bright, zippy and irreverent - parts of it are positively frantic - but the result feels more desperate than fun. This is strictly formula fare, with an anemic script filled with stereotypical characters and based on some very tired ideas.
The message of the movie is "Parents, especially fathers, should listen to their children." More precisely, the message is "PARENTS, ESPECIALLY FATHERS, SHOULD LISTEN TO THEIR CHILDREN!" You understand what I mean, DON'T YOU? Just in case all the yammering about estranged fathers and sons doesn't get the point across, Disney thoughtfully provides an orchestral score turned to the "maximum emotional manipulation" setting.
Equally annoying are the musical montages. The practice of playing an entire pop song while the characters frolic or sulk (or whatever mood you're selling) has been done to death, but the corpse gets flogged repeatedly here. Chicken Little opens with a musical montage, bad enough by itself. But later the filmmakers magnify the sin when they dare to present back-to-back montages.
The double-montage, by the way, is used to pound home the whole estranged-fathers-and-sons-oh-why-can't-they-just-talk theme. When the poor kid (or in this case, chick) goes to his room for some quality moping after his latest bad encounter with Dad, the soundtrack breaks into a cringe-inducing version of the Jimmy Webb tune, "All I Know." ("I bruise you, you bruise me, we both bruise too easily.")
Oh please release me.
The story puts a sci-fi spin on the Chicken Little story. When an acorn falls on the noggin of young Chicken Little (voiced by Zach Braff), he causes panic in the town of Oakey Oaks by claiming that the sky is falling. Worse, he disappoints his father, Buck Cluck (Garry Marshall, who also narrates). Later, when the chick discovers that the sky really is falling (well, sorta), no one will listen to him.
Most of the film's high points come during the alien section. Alas, to enjoy those moments, viewers must sit through all the wheezy father-son melodrama and a cliché-packed baseball game.
In addition to Braff and Marshall, the well-chosen voice cast also includes Joan Cusack, Steve Zahn, Don Knotts, Harry Shearer, Wallace Shawn, Fred Willard, Catherine O'Hara, Adam West and Patrick Warburton. That Garry Marshall is the only performer who really makes an impression is another indication of just how weak the script is.
Chicken Little isn't a bad movie. It's an ordinary movie, and that's a shame. Like Pixar, Disney should be setting the bar ever higher, not cranking out serviceable fare for younger children and people who think Garfield is a riot.