Chicken Little has a lot resting on his little feathered shoulders. Not only does he have to prove that the sky is really falling in the new Disney movie, but he also has to prove that Disney animation can stand on its own at the box office without collaborating with former partner Pixar Animation. With Pixar, Disney had most of its biggest animated hits of the last ten years, including "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles." But with "Chicken Little", the fate of the Disney universe rests solely on the studio's own computer-generated abilities.
So does Disney succeed? Well, for the most part, yes. In watching "Chicken Little," I could see a lot of the Pixar influence in the characters and in the dialogue that was sporadically peppered with references only adults would get.
As the film opens, we are introduced to the denizens of Oakey Oaks, a small community with traditional family values. Chicken Little (ably voiced by Zach Braff of "Scrubs), convinced the sky is falling, is creating chaos among the residents -- until it is proven that what really fell on his head was an acorn.
Fast forward a year after the “unfortunate acorn incident," and the young fowl is still being haunted by his mistake. Not only is he continually the source of ridicule, but Hollywood is even making a movie about him. Imagine that.
His father, Buck Cluck (gruffly voiced by actor/director Garry Marshall), tries to be understanding, but it's apparent that he views the whole debacle as a huge embarrassment to himself. This leads to the boy feeling very alone, as his mother passed away some time ago. It also leads him to join the town's baseball team, in an effort to redeem himself in the eyes of his father, who was a local sports hero when he was young.
He succeeds, but then, wouldn't you know it, the sky falls again.
Those familiar with the original fable will think they know where the story is going. Disney, however, has put it's own spin on the tale, updating it for a 21st century audience. With heavy references to many sci-fi films like "Independence Day" and "Alien" (not to worry -- completely scare-free), it appears the "sky" is actually part of space craft. And the plucky young cluck must not just stop the sky from falling, he must stop an alien invasion.
Fearful of appearing completely crazy -- again -- Chicken Little enlists the help of his three closest friends to prove he's right. And, like most Disney films, these sidekicks are some of the best characters in the movie.
Abby Mallard (aka "Ugly Duckling") is an intelligent, strong-willed young lady who holds a secret torch for our fledgling hero. Voiced with a small lisp by actress Joan Cusack ("Ice Princess", "Raising Helen"), Abby finally gets her man in a brief scene that will probably illicit screams of "ew, mush" from the younger set.
The ironically named Runt of the Litter is so beautifully voiced by actor Steve Zahn ("Sahara", "Daddy Day Care") that he easily steals most scenes he's in. Anxiety-ridden and slightly dull-edged mentally, Runt is ready to back his pals up no matter what -- as long as he has a song to carry him through. My wish for the dvd release is to see behind-the-scenes footage of Zahn recording the Spice Girls karaoke scene. Yes, I said Spice Girls karaoke. And it's good, trust me.
The only scenes Runt doesn't completely steal are the ones that include CL's third friend, Fish Out of Water. Though actor/editor Dan Molina ("All Dogs Go to Heaven") doesn't get much actual dialogue, Fish doesn't really need to say anything to get his manic personality across. I roared with laughter as, during a heart-felt talk between Chicken and Abby, Fish used several magazine pages to re-enact a scene from "King Kong" in the background.
So yes, the flick does contain a lot of the humor that made the Disney-Pixar films such hits. But there just seemed to be something missing. Where the Disney-Pixar collaborations seemed to be written to appeal to adults, as well as kids, "Chicken Little" is definitely for the kids, with just enough pop culture references to keep the adults entertained.
As a result, while it was funny, it just didn't fully involve my other emotions. Unlike "Finding Nemo" where father and son face huge obstacles to come together and understand each other, Chicken and his father only have a divide of embarrassment keeping them distant from one another. So, while the final "I love you, dad"/"I love you, too, son" moment is sweet, it just doesn't tug at the heartstrings like the reunion of Nemo and his dad. And while "The Incredibles" fearlessly threw zingers at the whole "superhero" mythology, "Chicken Little" squarely kept the barbs kid-friendly. Other than a brief tame discussion of names for urination and a rolling burp scene, there's really nothing in the film to encourage bad or irresponsible behavior in its characters, traits that other animated films have successfully used to appeal to the big kid in adult theatergoers.
"Chicken Little" is a good first step in Disney's animated independence, but the studio has a ways to go to fully recapture the glory it had in its former partnership. If you're looking for a sweet, funny family film, this is a good choice for your movie dollars. But if you're expecting the slight adult edge that films like "The Incredibles" had, you may leave the theater disappointed.
Cast (Voices): Zach Braff, Amy Sedaris, Steve Zahn, Joan Cusack, Garry Marshall, Don Knotts, Patrick Stewart, Harry Shearer, Fred Willard, Catherine O'Hara, Patrick Warburton, Adam West, Dan Molina
Director: Mark Dindal
Rated: G [brief bathroom humor, brief kissing scene]
Rating Score: 8 out of 10
Special notes: Some theaters are showing a 3-D version of this film.
Official website: the-sky-is-falling.movies.go.com