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Chicken Little

Walt Disney Pictures (November 4 2005), Walt Disney Home Entertainment (March 21 2006), single disc, 81 mins plus supplements, 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Rated G, Retail: $29.99

Storyboard:

The classic tale goes high-tech and in-your-face in Disney’s retooling of the “sky is falling” story. Lose the original wolf villain – in fact throw out the whole original plot – and bundle in some alien invaders and enough mayhem to ensure that, hopefully, something will stick and the cracks won’t show. Also making the jump is the technique…old school hand drawn animation tradition gets blasted out the window in favor of flash-bang-wallop computer generated trickery. All of which overbalances what should be a fairly simple story of a little chicken…

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The Sweatbox Review:

When it arrived in theaters late last year, Disney’s animated re-telling of the classic fable carried the tagline “Chicken Little, Movie Big”. How true that was, both for the fans awaiting the Studio’s long-in-the-making return to classic stories and for the Mouse House itself, seeing as this was their first time out of the gate on a completely computer animated movie away from Pixar (Dinosaur doesn’t really count as it was made with partial live-action backgrounds by effectively Disney’s special effects department, while Valiant was a pickup from Vanguard Animation that suffered unfair poor publicity compared to the Little media-blitz so as not to outshine the Mouse’s own feathered hero, whose debut came a couple of months after).

And, as it happens in hindsight, Chicken Little turned out to be a fairly important movie for another couple of reasons too: both as a milestone turning point from Disney’s traditional hand-drawn style, and as the film that more or less showed Pixar that the old hands could still pull one out of the hat and do quite well on their own, thank-you very much. There are lots of other factors involved, of course, but don’t put it pass this little bird that Chicken Little is the reason Disney and Pixar have recently married, with the recent sale of The Lamp to The Mouse, which buys in Pixar’s winning team lock stock and barrel.

Which now puts Chicken Little in a very strange place…it could actually end up as being Disney’s first – and last – solo animated film, what with the upcoming The Wild being another pickup, and all future films being marketed as Disney/Pixar releases. So, how did the boys and girls at Disney do, having to learn to draw all over again with a mouse of a different kind and a computer? Well, Chicken Little makes its point well enough, and the new technique on a story usually reserved for good old-fashioned cartooning marks itself out as a different kind of bird from the outset. Likewise, to go with all the fancy new visual tricks, the plot has been given an upgrade too – this is not the Chicken Little we remember from our childhood or even from Walt’s own short version of the tale from the 1940s.

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Using the age-old “sky is falling” routine as the film’s opening, Chicken Little, the movie, quickly dispenses with the whole thing and goes for high-tech, high-concept gags, seemingly making the whole thing up as it goes along. From the start it’s clear that Chicken Little, our feathered protagonist, is despised among the inhabitants of animal town Oakey Oakes for creating a fuss with his original ruse, but we soon learn that pieces of the sky are in fact dropping like bits of space-ship projected hexagons – because they ARE space-ship projected hexagons! Chicken is torn between trying to tell his friends Fish Out Of Water, Abby Mallard and Runt Of The Litter the truth, while also trying to live down the initial incident and making things up with his father Buck Cluck, who loves his kid but learns himself that he must trust him when the aliens – yes, I’m not making this up – eventually show, apparently intent on destroying the town. Of course, all comes right in the end, and everyone is reunited with everyone else (you’ll see what I mean), but to reveal anymore would spoil what slim plot there is.

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And that’s pretty much Chicken Little’s problem; there isn’t much that actually happens. It’s all fun in a knockabout, loud and wild way, but there isn’t much substance. The moments between Buck and his son are somewhat touching, but there’s at least two too many of these and they have the undesired effect of stop-starting the pace of the movie. When it’s good, such as the opening scenes, after an unappealing “how to open this movie” bit which falls flat and leans yet again (and too strongly) on the public’s flagging love of The Lion King, it’s very good. But when it stammers, it feels the product of too much executive level interference. More than once, one can almost hear the request of one such person asking for a vocal gag to be put in (hint: they’re usually the predictable, unfunny lines).

Adding to the list of things that Chicken Little seems to split itself between is the fact that it doesn’t really know if it’s a DreamWorks-esque Fractured Fairy Tale along the lines of Shrek, or if it’s trying to be good clean Disney fun. Being a CGI movie, we get ample amounts of comedy, pop-culture references (whenever else are you going to see a live-action clip of Harrison Ford as Indy Jones – strangely not shown in ratio – turn up in a Disney animated film?) and contemporary songs – at least they were contemporary a few years ago (though never deny the Mouse to mine that Queen catalog one more time)! The film had been in production for a good few years, going through director and story changes, and even a central character gender switch (Chicken Little was, at one point, a girl to be voiced by Mrs Incredible, Holly Hunter)!

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As with another film that he came in and “rescued”, director Mark Dindal eventually steers Chicken Little through these choppy waters to being a fairly enjoyable romp, but nothing that really sticks in the mind. Indeed, I saw the film in its 3D theatrical presentation (which, I have to add, did nothing for me other than reflect the theater’s “Exit” signs in the Little specs given to the audience) and came out almost not remembering a thing about it! Certainly seeing it again helped refresh my memory, of course, and there are fun things about the movie to be sure, but the frenetic pace, hyperactive characters and comical alien intrusions reminded me of a simpler and slightly more fun movie: Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius.

All that said, I have found myself being perhaps unfairly harsh on a movie whose simple aim is to entertain, and in this respect it does it well. If I said that Chicken Little, from its inception to its marketing, seems a little confused, I wouldn’t mean that as a complaint. From day one, it seems the movie has had a split personality, something reflected in Chicken’s character himself. Voiced by Scrubs star Zach Braff, I found the voice to be too mature for the little chicken of the story, especially as he still seems to be in high school. Then again, the posters – and the cover art here – have him dressed up in a super cool suit, Men In Black style – surely the clothing of someone almost twice his supposed age?

The other voices work much better and it’s great to hear Don Knotts sounding so spot on as the Mayor, Turkey Lurkey, here in his final film role before passing away earlier this year. Director Garry Marshall scores as Buck Cluck, even though the writing for his character isn’t the strongest in the picture, while Wallace Shawn plays another of his irritable school principal roles. Serial Disney cameo vocalist Patrick Warburton offers his usual blend of slightly sarcastic but innocent delivery, while 1960s Batman Adam West turns up in the film’s closing in a parody of everything we’ve just seen, regurgitated big, Hollywood movie style. And that again, while amusing while one is under its spell, is the problem – everything seems derived from voices, jokes and ideas we’ve all seen and heard before, and even that over-the-top movie recreation at the end feels strongly reminiscent of Tim Burton’s similar prank at the end of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.

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Chicken Little is not as full and bustling as the overly hurried Robots, nor does it drag in spots like the recent Madagascar. The animation – surely an important point in any review of this film – is easily up to scratch, as one would hope and nigh on expect from this particular Studio. Especially good is Mayor Turkey Lurkey – just watch his face even when he’s not sprouting Knotts lines! Taking a traditionally styled approach to the production design, the artists have fun in their imaginative world, which has seemingly jumped from the classic cartoons of the 1940s into the three-dimensional computer space of today. Keeping with the kid-friendly tact, colors are bright ‘n’ shiny, and even the duller shades have a vibrancy about them that almost glows.

As a final touching thought, the movie is dedicated towards the end of the credits to legendary animation storyman Joe Grant, who passed away during production, and though there are much worse (and some better) Disney films that could have served this honor, I’m sure the great man would be proud that his contributions continued at the Studio for so long and in to the new animated world of CGI techniques. For a G-rated movie, it may contain some mysterious themes (a Streisand-loving pig?) and ultimately comes off as more than a little schizophrenic and indeed totally insane at times, but as it unspools Chicken Little is a hysterically enjoyable diversion, and the kids will take to it like a chicken to…well, you get the idea.

Is This Thing Loaded?

Can you say “double dip”? One of Disney’s high spots for a pretty dismal year in theaters, and we not only don’t get two discs, but miss out on a commentary track as well? From the initial announcement of the disc, the one title that kept coming back to me was Lilo And Stitch, which got a little more than this first time out but is itself due for a two-disc reissue any time soon. Seeing as the filmmakers seem pleased to speak in the supplements, and the penchant for Disney to present their animated films in nothing but sooper-dooper editions, the lack of really meaty bonuses here can only scream of another edition coming down the line. Should you hold off for that one? Well, rumors have pointed to Christmas, but then again we have been waiting for that Lilo And Stitch set for a good couple of years now. A disappointment all the same, but let’s see what we get…

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Bypassing the “turn my interactive DVD into a VHS play-through” function that is FastPlay, the main menu opens up with some fairly non-exciting background imagery from the flick – something that again points to a more elaborately designed second edition coming down the track. The usual amount of previews play from start up or from the Sneak Peeks menu, with The Wild and Cars theatrical trailers (both in anamorphic widescreen no less), Dumbo (oddly using score cues from The Rocketeer) and The Little Mermaid’s DVD reissues, plus AirBuddies, Howl’s Moving Castle, Narnia, Brother Bear 2 and a Disney Channel spot for Raven.

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The disc essentially serves up only two extras that could be classed as true collectors’ features. Touching only briefly on the film’s original and varied incarnations, the first is a selection of Deleted Scenes, running more than 13 minutes if one selects the Play All option with intros by director Mark Dindal and his producing partner Randy Fullmer. Don Knotts reads over an alternative, fully animated old-school storybook opening, and it’s a much warmer beginning to the movie; hearing Knotts’ delightful delivery adds some poignancy too. The scene was dropped to show Chicken Little’s acorn-mishap happening for real, and with much more hyperactivity, in the movie’s opening, though this is a very sweet nod to the Studio’s animated past (including a very familiar Ducky Lucky) and it’s a shame that at least its first half couldn’t have been worked in to the film up until the moment Little screams for help.

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The second alternate opening included is a strange one that even Dindal and Fullmer admit was a bad idea! An attempt to brighten up the Buck Cluck character from coming over too “mean” in the final movie, the sequence grew out of proportion until it was too big for itself. Though there are some neat shots in this moment of Cluck whipping up breakfast for his son, its clear why the mostly animated but not all rendered section was cut, though it does introduce the final opening in the movie and somewhat explains the “hand held news camera” style of the finished scene and reveals where much of the initial theatrical teaser came from (just like Disney not to let unused but expensive finished animation go to waste). The final alternate opening goes waaay back to show how the film would have opened if ex-Disney honcho Michael Eisner had continued his insistence that the hero become a heroine (before being changed back again), while a storyboard scene introduces the characters of Runt and Fish with a little more background.

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Moving down to Backstage Disney and we’re presented with what feels like a potted documentary, Hatching Chicken Little, here running just over a concise and packed 18 minutes when one selects the Play All function. The five offered behind-the-scenes clips cover the development (using some of the deleted scene material as well as girl-Little tests), the cartoony look in CGI (note all the competing studio posters on the animators’ wall!), voicing (with footage of the cast in the vocal booths), music (from Debney’s score to the songs and the Barenaked Ladies), and Dindal’s directing style.

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There isn’t really much we haven’t heard or know from before, and little left out that could be expanded upon in any great detail, but there isn’t much time for anything other than soundbites from Dindal and Fullmer. There’s a brief bit in here about Little’s early concept transformation from boy Chicken to girl chick and back again on Eisner’s orders, but this is about as close as we get to any of the rumored production hiccups the film had along the way and, even though he has left this particular nest, Eisner comes out of it well as the filmmakers’ shoulder the blame for the switch.

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There’s a quick trivia and search game, Where’s Fish?, which is certainly non-essential even by younger standards, while Music And More pretty much succeeds in making one very tired very quickly of the Barenaked Ladies’ one-time Oscar hopeful theme song from the movie. We get One Little Slip three times (all around 3 minutes): once as a live-action music video and twice as the same animated karaoke and sing-along clips with included lyrics on screen. Lastly in this section, there’s a Disney Channel Cheetah Girls video clip (again running 3 minutes) for their end-credit version of Shake Your Tail Feather (geddit??), which is a little more ambitious than the Barenaked Ladies recording studio-set video, but not by much.

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Rounding the disc out are a couple of Easter Eggs, which may be amusing depending on your love of the featured characters. Easily spotted but not so rewarding, these one-minute spots have Foxy Loxy in the first (from the Main Menu), and Fish and Runt in the second (located with the Bonus Features) explaining their take on the movie. Of course, this is as close to any publicity material we are presented with – the ’specially created teaser, theatrical trailers, very varied poster campaign (and its interesting logo changes) and of course any kind of audio commentary are all left unexplored.

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Case Study:

How more obvious could it be that this disc is a placeholder for something much better in the future? It doesn’t seem to warrant a slipcover or even a usually standard Disney white keepcase, instead coming in a bog standard black box. A chapter insert lays out the usuals on one side, and a DVD Guide outlining the menu options on the other. Not anything gobsmackingly amazing, much like the disc overall.

Ink And Paint:

Brand spanking new movie rendered directly from the brightly colored digital files – how else is this not going to look anything other than demo quality? If you’re used to the fantastic image quality of the Disney/Pixar discs, you’re in for another treat here. The framing looks ever so slightly tight, but that seems to be the case more and more with films these days, and the apparent 1.78:1 original ratio aptly recreates the theatrical experience minus the 3D imaging (which, as noted above, didn’t really add anything) and, therefore naturally, a quick post-credit gag that had Chicken Little and Buck Cluck reaching out from the screen to pick up some leftover popcorn. The short(-ish) running time of 81 minutes and lack of DTS allows for the film to be presented at a higher than usual bit rate, without any flaws in the image.

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Scratch Tracks:

Perhaps on a decent two-disc set, the movie might have been given the DTS treatment, but the Dolby 5.1 track here is as loud and proud as one could wish for and envelopes the viewer somewhat akin to the Enhanced Home Theater mixes that Disney often employ on their older classics. It’s an aggressive track, for an aggressive movie, while music spreads along the front soundfield. Apart from John Debney’s comically over-the-top (and therefore perfect for the feature) orchestral score, the use of contemporary stereo songs means those sections don’t jump out as much as they might (and I’ve never been a fan of scoring action scenes with rock songs), but the added bass here gives a bit of a kick at least. Not quite pitch perfect, but a fairly faultless track all the same. French and Spanish dubs are included.

Final Cut:

Chicken Little finds Disney in sheep mode, being more of a follower than the leaders they once were. The film’s eventual big box office haul seems more down to the blanket marketing that the Studio sought to swamp the media with rather than down to the merits of the film itself (Chicken Little, with the balance of Pixar in the holding, was always more than just a movie). The film did end up with a respectable sum that proved Disney could compete in the very field they helped create and subsequently became so detached from, but this was still a far cry from the lofty heights of a Pixar smash, the Studio’s own traditionally animated Tarzan and Lilo And Stitch or even the final take for Dinosaur, a film that, like Pocahontas, has unfairly gone down in history as a bit of a dud.

With the recent magical ingredients (though not as varied) of Pixar coming aboard the good ship Mouse House, perhaps we’ll see an improvement in the style-over-content manifesto that seems to currently guide the studio. Already things seem to be afoot with Disney’s next all-CGI feature Meet The Robinsons, and more excitingly, we’re even hearing whiffs of a return to hand-drawn feature animation. With the glut of CGI animation entering the field, I can’t say that Disney has anything new to add to the form on the basis of this outing, but long time fans of the Studio’s work will find the visual jump to CGI at least pleasing, and Chicken Little, for any of its faults, is certainly one of the more enjoyable and accomplished computer features out there.

The DVD’s lack-lustre package – no DTS audio, missing commentary or extensive documentary, plain packaging, etc – all adds up to a disc that’s bound to be replaced at some point with a special edition…indeed, could these absent features be waiting in the wings to play a part in the film’s eventual Blu-Ray debut pulling power?? Are fans being played for every penny we have? You betcha, and you can believe that more than a crazy chick screaming out that the sky is falling!

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

chicklit-15.jpg MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD

 

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