In light of longtime Disney protectorate and CGI vanguard, Pixar, getting ready to leave Uncle Walt's nest, diminutive clucker Chicken Little's famous catchphrase -- "The sky is falling!" -- seems to have become an unofficial slogan at The Walt Disney Company. In an effort to fill the void that will soon be left (or may not be left) after 2006's Cars by the outfit that produced Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and The Incredibles, Disney looked ahead to that inevitable re-feathering and hatched Chicken Little. It is the yolk-filled story of a young chicken (with daddy issues) who rallies his gang of misfit friends to help stop an alien invasion, all the while trying to earn the respect of his father, from whom he is alienated. Will this modern spin on the favorite fable cock-a-doodle do well enough so that The Mouse can thumb noses at and humble the dependable departing hit-makers? Or will it earn mere scratch at the box office? Will I stop making bird puns before this review is done? Probably no on all counts, but that doesn't necessarily mean that there's something irredeemably rotten in Henmark.
Visually, Chicken Little falls between plain and eye-popping, with character designs that do not quite have the pizzazz to be merchandised ad infinitum (only half the production team had worked in CGI before). Chicken Little, with his giant head and big green glasses, is small, smart and motherless, hardly a trio of traits that a kid would proudly tout as his totem on a backpack or T-shirt for fear of activating bully radar. The background characters, especially, are quite dull, doing little to establish the mood or further the story. As far as main characters go, Runt (Of The Litter), a pig, is the most broadly funny, with his gargantuan size providing plenty of comic relief, and thankfully, the writers do not resort to belittling him for being fat (the bullies will take care of that). The cleverest character is Fish (Out Of Water), who wears a diver's helmet filled with water as he walks around their town of Oakey Oaks with the rest of the potential entrées. He is Harpo Marx with fins, miming all of his dialogue simply enough so that the wee folk can understand.
While not stellar, the voice talent is decent enough, especially Steve Zahn, who is hilarious as Runt, and Garry Marshall, making Chicken Little's angst justified as the feathered boy's traditional, widowed father, Buck Cluck. Joan Cusack is a fit as Chicken's squeeze, Abby Mallard (The Ugly Duckling), which some might say is snide and insensitive casting, considering her unconventional looks (I've always loved her and Martha Plimpton both). By accepting the role, though, she is saying, "Sticks and stones...", knowing full well that the names that can hurt her the least are the ones she calls herself first. Family Guy fans will be able to pick out Patrick Warburton and a great bit by Adam West. Likewise, Christopher Guest movie staples Harry Shearer, Catherine O'Hara and Fred Willard are on hand, too, adding to the fun. Don Knotts as Mayor Turkey Lurkey and Patrick Stewart as teacher Mr. Woolensworth are underused, as are professional goof Amy Sedaris and the distinctive Wallace Shawn. Also, Scrubs and Garden State star Zach Braff as Chicken Little doesn't have a memorable enough voice or characterization to be able to recall it much after the movie's over.
Originally, Chicken Little was supposed to be a girl, which would have made for a rare dynamic for a movie like this, but Disney played it safe, reportedly thanks to some script meddling by the now-deposed Michael Eisner. Also, I haven't done the accounting, but isn't it like a law or something that kids in Disney movies are short a parent or two? Again, in the old Disney mold. While bloodless, like nearly all Disney movies, the violence -- or as the MPAA might specify in their ratings footnotes, "peril" -- gets surprisingly heated for a G-rated flick. At the War of the Worlds-style climax, the aliens haphazardly blast the denizens of Oakey Oaks with some sort of ray that makes them appear to disintegrate. Of course, the "G" rating (and Disney's self-regulators) wouldn't allow them to really disintegrate, so we see them all safe-and-sound later on. The aliens, walking around in their spider-like metal skeletons, are pretty menacing, and will sure to start some younger viewers shrieking (which some people find in itself entertaining.) Disney fetishists will appreciate a gag in which some panicked lemmings, with no high cliffs in sight, leap from a park bench (narrated by Simpsons regular Shearer), referencing the infamous Disney lemming snuff film, White Wilderness (1958).
What is truly impressive, though, is "Disney Digital 3-D", the sharp new process which The Mouse is debuting in select theaters. Here, "select" means 84 out of over 3,600 (for a list of them, click here). Gone are the eyewear calisthenics Disney had you doing for the stereoscopic segments in Robert Rodriguez's pair o' duds, Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over and The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lavagirl in 3-D -- you get to wear the sporty, green plastic frames (just like Chicken Little's) throughout the entire 77 minute feature. The edges are crisp and everything has such depth. There is barely any resulting eyestrain, and this is not the cheapo 1950's style red lens/blue lens thing, either. This new process even trumps the technology used in Disney's own theme park attractions. Using a single digital projector (instead of the usual two) and projecting alternate left/right images at 144 frames per second (six times regular speed), there is barely any archiving like double images or effects that don't work if you don't look at them at just the right angle. This is IMAX 3-D-good.
Aquaman James Cameron, whose last two films were in 3-D, calls this "The 3-D Renaissance", and he has every right to be excited. This is really innovative, immersive stuff, and Disney plans to roll out this technology in hundreds more theaters in the coming years. However, unfortunately for the Chicken Littles of the exhibition world -- the independent theaters -- the only ones with enough capital to afford such an upgrade are the chains like National Amusements, Loews and AMC. It is in places like these -- and not in quaint, affordable mom-and-pops -- that you will enjoy the 3-D versions of the Star Wars trilogy starting in 2007, and nevermind when they eventually unveil the costly tech to do it without the glasses. Such is the cost of progress, I guess; an only slightly better-than-average movie with a fantastic gimmick that will surely fill millions of seats in the years to come.