Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Chicken Little / **1/2 (G)

Featuring the voice talents of:

Chicken Little: Zach Braff
Buck Cluck: Garry Marshall
Abby Mallard: Joan Cusack
Runt of the Litter: Steve Zahn
Foxy Loxy: Amy Sedaris
Mayor Turkey Lurkey: Don Knotts

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Mark Dindal. Written by Steve Bencich, Ron J. Friedman, and Ron Anderson. Running time: 82 min. Rated G.

As an actor, the sad fact is natural ability is a necessity for the craft from which the artist is formed. As a critic I have a great appreciation for the natural ability of successful actors and feel there is a lot more natural ability out there than many actors are willing to admit. But when that natural ability is not there, “acting” becomes a chore of stretching and mugging and overexertion that is usually more painful to the observer rather than the practitioner. Watching Disney’s first solo foray into the now CGI dominated market of animation Chicken Little, I was reminded of what it is like to watch someone who is not so naturally skilled in acting. They know what they are trying to achieve, but they go at it with too much gusto, too much willingness to please, yet not enough confidence to convince.

The movie picks up just as Chicken Little (voiced by Zach Braff of NBC’s Scrubs) is doing his infamous deed of claiming that the sky is falling. The town is in chaos thinking the world is coming to an end. Mayor Turkey Lurkey (Don Knotts, Pleasantville) is proving his own name true. A mother rabbit provides one of the movie’s best sight gags as she pulls a train of twenty or so screaming baby rabbits out of a stroller before it is hit by a truck. But it appears that Chicken Little has mistaken a falling acorn for a piece of the sky. His reputation is ruined along with his father’s, a former high school sports hero named Buck Cluck (voiced by Garry Marshall, Orange County).

A year later Little has yet to live his reputation as the town crazy down. His only friends are other misfits, like the ugly duckling Abby Mallard (Joan Cusack, Toy Story 2) and the biggest little pig you’ve ever seen Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn, Sahara). Little yearns for the former notoriety of his father, his father’s support and attention, and the popularity of the current high school sports star Foxy Loxy (Amy Sedaris, Strangers with Candy). Eventually Little achieves some positive notoriety, but when yet another piece of the sky falls upon his head, he fears it may all just crumble away as the sky itself appears to be.

Chicken Little is the first CGI animated feature Disney has produced in house, rather than through the Pixar Animation Studio, and it is obvious they are trying to make a noticeable break with that independent studio while trying desperately to live up to the high standards of quality that Pixar set for the industry. Chicken Little drops the realism Pixar has so far tried to achieve with their animation for a more cartoony look (a look Blue Sky (for Fox) and Dreamworks Animation have already dabbled in with their CGI features). I’m not sure I understand the point of CGI over traditional animation if you’re going for a cartoon look, but it does create a unique appearance that helps develop the feel of this particular barnyard animal universe.

Chicken Little is not an outright failure. It is filled with many wonderful moments and images and laughs. But it seems a bit unfocused, as if the writers had a bunch of sight gag ideas but couldn’t really figure out how to work them into the story of Chicken Little itself, which certainly never had anything to do with the main plotline provided here. I’m trying not to spoil what the whole sky falling thing is all about in this picture for those people who have never seen a preview or any promotional materials for this movie before, in other words – the deaf and blind. Although the explanation in itself seems a desperate excuse to come up with some sort of logic to the sky falling even though it really has nothing to do with the point of Chicken Little’s story.

The backgrounds are often filled with the film’s funniest moments, which would probably require multiple viewings to discover them all. There’s the bird trying to get into a store that just can’t help but run into the storefront window pane until he knocks himself unconscious. A penny distracts Mayor Turkey Lurkey at a key moment, but the punch line comes when he nonchalantly ducks back into the frame to pick it up. And the writers and director really miss an opportunity by neglecting to utilize one of the story’s most sparkling personalities in Foxy Loxy. An increase in her involvement could have opened many more possibilities in terms of where the plot could go. And she was funny, both looking and acting, as the town bully/snob/superstar.

While Chicken Little falls short of the plateaus Disney reached while employing Pixar, it is an indication that the studio is not entirely lost without them. Chicken Little is really not so grand a story as it is trying to be here, and any lessons it has to teach would be better served in a subtler, more toned down experience. Perhaps Disney’s computer generated animation division should take one of their own film’s lessons to heart and stop trying so hard to be what they think people want them to be (read Pixar) and relax into just being themselves.

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