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Chicken Little

A Solid First Effort for Disney's New Animation Division

Chicken Little marks Disney's first foray into full-length, computer-animated filmmaking. It's a semi-promising beginning to their new computer animation division, as well as signaling the end of Disney's decades-long commitment to traditional, 2-D animation (2000's Dinosaur was a combination of CG and "live" background plates). Disney's previous use of computer-generated animation has been limited, primarily to backgrounds or objects, with 1992's Beauty and the Beast as the first Disney film to extensively use computer animation (in one key scene). Disney's other, arguably more important, connection to computer animation has been through its partnership with Pixar Animation Studios, beginning with Toy Story in 1995 and continuing through 2004's The Incredibles last year.

After a double-prologue, the first setting up Chicken Little's "the sky-is-falling" bit, and the second picking up a year later in Oakey Oaks, where we discover that Chicken Little (voiced by Zach Braff) hasn't lived down the earlier incident and has become the butt of jokes at his elementary school, Chicken Little settles into a redemption narrative, with Chicken Little desperate to impress his disapproving, ex-jock father, Buck Cluck (Garry Marshall). Chicken Little, unathletic, but clever and resourceful, joins his school's baseball team. His arch-nemesis, Foxy Loxy (Amy Sedaris), just happens to be the star player of the baseball team. Chicken Little is undersized (his head is almost as large as his body) and can barely hold up a baseball bat.

Surprisingly, rather than add one more reversal to Chicken Little's sagging fortunes, director Mark Dindal (The Emperor's New Groove) has a brief moment of triumph, basking in the glow of his success with his long-time friends, Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn), an oversized pig with an eating disorder, Abby Mallard (Joan Cusack), the Ugly Duckling, and Fish Out of Water, who wears a reverse diving helmet (the water's on the inside, not the outside of the helmet).

Just as Chicken Little enjoys his moment in the sun, disaster (or near disaster) strikes: an alien polygon falls from the sky and into Chicken Little's bedroom. Chicken Little then shifts into all-too-familiar alien invasion mode, with Chicken Little and his friends doing battle with tentacled robots. Chicken Little has an even harder task to accomplish: convince the townspeople and, more importantly, his father, that he's telling the truth (and saving the town in the process).

The overly familiar alien invasion plot turn casually borrows ideas from H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds (any version), E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, and even the recent Jimmy Neutron theatrical feature. Dindal and his screenwriters try to cover all bases by throwing in a nod to audiences that might find this plot turn too familiar by having one character say, "It's a war of the worlds out there," (or something to that effect). Simply put, the alien invasion storyline has been done one too many times, in live action and in animation. Dindal and his team didn't (or couldn't) add anything new to the mix. Unfortunately, Dindal and his screenwriters decided to follow the DreamWorks model for commercial success (e.g., A Shark's Tale, Shrek I & II), employing far too many stale pop culture references, presumably for adult audiences (with the exception of an expertly handled Raiders of the Lost Ark reference).

Chicken Little does, however, succeed on several levels. It succeeds in the cleverly conceived and executed sight gags, verbal humor, and set pieces, especially Chicken Little's early misadventures on his way to school, the baseball game, and later, the extended alien invasion sequence. Chicken Little should be singled out for the inspired character designs, at least for the primary characters. Chicken Little's facial expressiveness is, at times, a marvel, but it's Runt of the Litter, with his rounded figure and too-small-for-his-head cap, agile dance moves, and penchant for breaking out into song when nervous or scared (that and eating whatever happens to be available), who practically steals the film. Buck Cluck's girth also comes in handy for several humorous gags, as do the cuddly, non-threatening aliens (their war machines are a different matter, however).

Besides the characters and characterizations, the fine voice work by a talented and well-known supporting cast deserves some mention as well, a voice cast that includes Patrick Stewart, Amy Sedaris, Don Knotts, Fred Willard, Catherine O'Hara, and Patrick Warburton, who brings his singular vocal talents to the movie-within-a-movie scene that ends Chicken Little (and that shamelessly borrows elements from a comparable scene in Pee Wee's Big Adventure).

Given Dindal's previous effort, The Emperor's New Groove, a hip, irreverent, animated comedy patterned after Chuck Jones' Warner Brothers' cartoons, viewers might expect a similar level of irreverence or subversive wit. It's there, but only in the subtle and not-so-subtle jokes connected to the Runt character (which might prove objectionable to "traditional values" leaning viewers). Dindal, however, glosses over any potential objection by having Runt and a female character pair off for the grand finale, but anyone attuned to the character's extroverted, flamboyant personality (and his love of Barbra Streisand) will know better.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars