Film Review: Chicken Little (2005)

*All reviews contain spoilers*
Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, is property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The author claims no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the author and are not to be viewed as factual documentation. All screencaps are from Disneyscreencaps.com.

Cast
Zach Braff – Chicken Little
Joan Cusack – Abby Mallard
Mark Dindal – Morkubine Porcupine and Coach
Evan Dunn – Kirby, the Alien Kid (partial)
Sean Elmore – Kirby, the Alien Kid (partial)
Will Finn – Hollywood Fish
Kelly Hoover – Mama Runt
Matthew Josten – Kirby, the Alien Kid (partial)
Mark Kennedy – Hollywood Runt
Don Knotts – Mayor Turkey Lurkey
Garry Marshall – Buck Cluck
Dara McGarry – Hollywood Abby
Dan Molina – Fish Out of Water
Catherine O’Hara – Tina, the Alien Mom
Amy Sedaris – Foxy Loxy
Wallace Shawn – Principal Fetchit
Harry Shearer – Dog Announcer
Patrick Stewart – Mr. Woolensworth
Mark Walton – Goosey Loosey
Patrick Warburton – Alien Cop
Adam West – Ace, the Hollywood Chicken Little
Joe Whyte – Rodriguez, Acorn Mascot and Umpire
Fred Willard – Melvin, the Alien Dad
Steve Zahn – Runt of the Litter
Plus the usual slew of additional voices
Sources of InspirationHenny Penny, a traditional western folk tale
Release Dates
October 30th, 2005 at the El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles, California, USA (premiere)
November 4th, 2005 in USA (general release)
Run-time – 81 minutes
Directors – Mark Dindal
Composers – John Debney
Worldwide Gross – $314 million
Accolades – 4 wins and 15 nominations


2005 in History

A dwarf planet called Eris is discovered by Michael E. Brown and his team, which would lead to Pluto being reclassified as one itself the next year
North Korea announces its possession of nuclear weapons
The Kyoto Protocol goes into effect
China ratifies an anti-secession law to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence
Pope Benedict XVI succeeds Pope John Paul II to become the 265th pope
Prince Charles of the UK marries Camilla Parker-Bowles, his second wife, in the first-ever royal civil ceremony
YouTube debuts; the first video uploaded to the site (which you can still find there today) is titled Me at the zoo, by co-founder Jawed Karim
Syria ends its 29-year occupation of Lebanon when it withdraws the last of its military garrison
A string of globally coordinated concerts known as Live 8 takes place to raise awareness of the Make Poverty History campaign
In July, the cities of London, UK and Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, are hit by a series of bombings, killing around 132 people in total
The Provisional Irish Republican Army disarms all its units for the first time since 1969
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is launched from Cape Canaveral; it continues to explore Mars to this day
Hurricane Katrina devastates the southern United States, becoming one of the deadliest and costliest natural disasters in the nation’s history
Israel demolishes numerous settlements in the Gaza Strip and withdraws its army from the territory
The first trial of Saddam Hussein begins; a second followed the next year, followed by his execution
A series of coordinated bombings in Amman, Jordan, kill around 60 people
A young Scottish man called Andrew Stimpson becomes the first person to be “cured” of HIV (although his recovery remains mysterious)
Angela Merkel becomes the first female chancellor of Germany; the next day, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf becomes the first democratically elected female head of state in Africa when she wins the Liberian election
Frenchwoman Isabelle Dinoire becomes the first person to undergo a face transplant operation (she sadly died of cancer eleven years later, possibly caused by complications related to the surgery)
The African nation of Chad descends into civil war
Births of Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti of Thailand, Princess Alexia of the Netherlands, Prince Christian of Denmark, Prince Sverre Magnus of Norway and Leonor, Princess of Asturias (in Spain)


Oh boy.

You thought last week was bad… well lookie what we have here.

untitled

We come at last to the infamous Chicken Little, the film regarded by many critics and fans as Disney’s worst canon “classic” of all time. The company itself was having a panic attack at the time; the early 2000s hadn’t been kind at the box office, and as a lucrative distribution contract with Pixar neared its end, they were at risk of losing one of their most successful partners. By 2005, Pixar had six solid hits (if you count A Bug’s Life) under its belt and was showing no signs of falling off the success wagon any time soon. Disney, meanwhile, had only Lilo & Stitch to bolster its reputation – everything else they’d released since Tarzan had struggled and their last couple of films had bombed hard.

Of course, rather than considering any potential problems with the writing, Disney blamed this on the style of animation – to them, Pixar’s popularity was mostly due to its use of fancy computer technology for its animated films, so if they wanted to catch up, they’d have to abandon the decades-old tradition of hand-drawn animation on which they’d built their reputation and take a step into the future. If they couldn’t beat them, they would join them.

The idea for Chicken Little went through quite a few changes from inception to screen. Director Mark Dindal came up with the original version of the film back in 2001, at which point the protagonist was an emotional little girl chicken who would be sent to a summer camp to try to calm her down. As in the original tale, she would cause panic with her wild exaggerations, and her relationship with her father would be damaged as a result (this aspect made it into the finished product). In these early days, Chicken Little would be voiced by Holly Hunter, facing off against a nefarious camp counsellor voiced by Penn Jillette.

However, when Dindal came to pitch his film to Michael Eisner (who was then in his final years as Disney CEO and getting a lot of flak for the box office failures), Eisner suggested it would be better to change Chicken Little into a male character, apparently because “if you’re a boy and you’re short, you get picked on.” I mean, I know myself that’s true, but come on. Was that really reason enough to make a change like this? Nowadays, the opposite change would be more likely to occur, but apparently Dindal had to accept his new male protagonist and rework his story accordingly.

Just like Home on the Range (another hugely unpopular entry), there’s very little information available on Chicken Little’s production. All I know is that by early 2003, the new president of Disney’s Feature Animation unit, David Stainton, had become unhappy with the direction the story was taking and told Dindal to revise the script. Over three months, the plot thus morphed into a story about Chicken Little trying to save his town from space aliens…

Yeah. Maybe we should just get into this thing.

Characters and Vocal Performances

In another similarity with Home on the Range, one of Chicken Little’s biggest weaknesses is its cast. Once again, we have a core cast of rather unremarkable characters supported by a mass of forgettable and mean-spirited extras. First, let’s deal with our protagonist, the titular chicken.

Chicken Little the champion

Back when Chicken Little was going to be a girl, Holly Hunter was in place as his voice and remained so for eight months (seriously, she’d recorded all of her lines and everything). Then, the “gender swap” order came from the execs and that was that – Hunter’s work was scrapped, and the search began for a new voice. Despite his small size, Chicken Little is supposed to be around twelve or thirteen years old and so he needed to sound more like a teenager than a child. The studio thus considered several actors who had already voiced similarly youthful males in the canon, such as Michael J. Fox (Milo), Matthew Broderick (Simba) and David Spade (Kuzco), testing around forty actors for the role in total before deciding on Zach Braff. Dindal noted that Braff “pitched his voice slightly to sound like a junior high kid. Right there, that was really unique – and then he had such great energy.”

I won’t dwell on this for too long, but I’m still puzzled as to what the gender swap really accomplished. Would it have changed much of the plot had Chicken Little remained a girl? Sure, Abby Mallard would have had to be made male (because heaven forbid Disney portray same-sex romance), but that’s about it. We could have still had the daddy issues, the baseball stuff, the aliens… I just wonder what Eisner’s thought process was. Comments on the DVD’s making-of featurette support the idea that it was because small size is more of a handicap for boys than girls (and trust me, I agree with that), but this seems like too small of a reason on its own. Perhaps they were afraid of gender stereotyping – an overemotional, panic-stricken girl character might have seemed a bit done-to-death, so by making him male they were trying to challenge such outdated ideas? I must admit, it’s good to see a small and nerdy male cast as the hero for once.

Anyway, enough musing. As he is, Chicken Little is your usual “underdog” (or underchicken), an unpopular social outcast who just wishes people would listen to him. After the famous “sky falling” incident in the prologue, we cut to a year later to find that everybody in town – including his own father – thinks he’s a nut-job. In an attempt to prove himself, Chicken Little decides to follow in his dad’s footsteps and take up baseball, which almost proves disastrous until (of course) he manages to win the last game of the season and (hooray) gets everyone to like him at last. This newfound popularity is short-lived, however, because we suddenly veer left into the whole “alien” storyline, which forces Chicken Little to finally confront his issues with his father and ultimately explains all his strange stories about pieces of falling sky. With the mystery solved, the fickle and shallow townsfolk accept him for good (or at least until he deviates from their idea of “normal” again).

Chicken Little in cinema

Chicken Little is quite a likeable character, as was Maggie in Home on the Range. Despite his many disadvantages and setbacks, he’s a plucky and ingenious lad, using his mind to overcome problems and adapting some of his better tricks for different situations (such as the whole “soda-rocket” thing). Yet the thing that makes him easiest to sympathise with is the sheer adversity he faces on a daily basis; in this awful world, he has almost nobody on his side except for his three misfit friends, and can’t even count on his own father to be there for him.

Buck makes it plain on numerous occasions that he’s embarrassed and ashamed of his son, and the crushed look on the poor kid’s face every time is just heart-breaking. Heck, even his teachers are bullies! (“Popular versus unpopular”? Is that supposed to be funny?) It’s not hard to understand why Chicken Little has intimacy issues; he seems to be a victim of child neglect and is afraid of talking to his father about his problems, because he doesn’t want to risk “embarrassing” him again. This emotional constipation could also explain why he doesn’t recognise Abby’s feelings for him until late in the film (tellingly, he only confesses his own feelings for her after finally clearing the air with his dad).

While it is good to see Chicken Little eventually stand up for himself in the film’s climax, calling his dad out for his abuse, it’s still a kind of underwhelming conclusion to his character arc because for it to work, we should want the two of them to reconcile. As it is, I can’t help feeling like Chicken Little would be better off without Buck! At least he’s managed to turn out as a decent kid; he’s helpful and friendly when given the chance, showing himself eager to help little Kirby get back to his parents, and when you think about it, he’s not even shy – it took a lot of guts to join a baseball team in this hostile world when he’s basically the leader of the nerds.

With an inner resourcefulness and a positive attitude, Chicken Little is one of this film’s few strong points. He might not be the most complex Disney hero ever, but at least he manages not to be a forgettable cipher and actually takes charge of his own life at times – he also has decent chemistry with Abby, although to me, it felt platonic until he randomly blurted out “I’ve always found you extremely attractive!” at the end. Chicken Little makes this watchable… just about.

Buck disappointed at night

Although the studio were considering Martin Sheen for the role of Buck Cluck at one point, they eventually chose Garry Marshall, who was originally going to appear in Dindal’s Kingdom of the Sun before the project was reworked. On being asked to voice Buck, Marshall claimed, “I said I don’t do voices. You want a chicken that talks like me, fine. So they hired me and they didn’t fire me, and it was like a closure on animation.” Right. Well. He sounds enthusiastic, doesn’t he? To be fair, he must have been a bit cheesed off about the whole Kingdom mess, and his energy with Zach Braff was good enough that the two of them got to record together a few times, which is an unusual move in animation.

Unfortunately, no amount of energy can save this character. Oh, Buck. This bloody chicken is one of the main reasons why this film doesn’t work – he’s an appalling father. While I have heard some critics defending him and pointing out how difficult an endeavour parenting can be, I personally don’t think there’s any way to excuse his treatment of Chicken Little in this. Buck actually serves as our narrator at the start (which goes nowhere, as there is no further narration), dismissing a number of “clichéd” openings from more traditional (and much better) Disney films before settling for a strange sepia-toned flashback. From there on, we see him struggling to deal with what he thinks is his son’s wacky imagination, before finally journeying to a point at which he can be there for him in the climax.

My God, this character is badly handled. I’m sure he wasn’t supposed to come across as so despicable, but he’s written in such a way that you really can’t sympathise with him. Time and time again, Buck proves himself incredibly vain, shallow and self-centred. Predictably, he’s a former sports star and must have been a bit of a jock in his day, but he’s never been able to let go of the “glory days” and is visibly disappointed that his son isn’t equally athletic. In both the sky-falling incident and the alien incident later on, his son appeals to him, asking him to trust him, and both times, Buck refuses to. You can see in these scenes from his nervous glances at the angry townsfolk that he cares more about what they think of him than his own son’s opinion, so he is essentially giving in to peer pressure, despite being a middle-aged man. Pathetic.

Buck disappointed in car

Even at the baseball game (which I’m surprised he attended), he continues to cringe and distance himself from his son, showing no support and simply joining the townsfolk in their low expectations – until Chicken Little wins. Then, suddenly, he’s all smiles, shouting “That’s my boy!” to anyone who’ll listen. That’s the recurring pattern; when Chicken Little messes up, he wants nothing to do with him, but when the kid’s popular, then it’s “okay” to like him.

Buck’s fickle feelings ebb and flow like the tide, but he’s generally unsupportive of anything Chicken Little wants to try and actively discourages him from trying out for the baseball team… because he’s clearly afraid his son will disgrace his good name. I got so sick of seeing this guy running Chicken Little down and squashing his confidence; sure, you might argue, he’s just being realistic, but that’s not the point. If Chicken Little joins the team and fails, then Buck’s job is to be there for him – not to stop him from trying out in the first place. In life, we learn by our mistakes; if you don’t try, then you’ll never know what you’re capable of. By discouraging his son from trying new activities, Buck is actively limiting his horizons and restricting his growth, creating a breeding ground for insecurities which could plague the poor kid for the rest of his life. At best, you could make an argument that Buck is simply overprotective, but even that is a form of abuse, albeit well-intentioned.

Finally, though, Chicken Little has had enough and in the heat of the alien invasion, he tells Buck what he needs to hear. “You’re never there for me!” After being confronted with the truth, Buck struggles for a moment before admitting it and promising to do better from then on. Although he’s clearly still having doubts, he thus joins Chicken Little in his final attempt to return Kirby to his alien parents and together, the two of them manage it, stopping the armada from destroying the town. Now, it’s good to see that the two of them manage to communicate at last and I’d like to think that their relationship continued to improve from then on, but given what we’ve seen of Buck’s fickle nature, you just can’t be sure. I feel like, if Chicken Little ever got into any further trouble as an adult, Buck would be right back to his old ways, siding with the onlookers and distancing himself as much as possible.

Buck learns his lesson

Being a parent is a complex, challenging and hugely rewarding job. I’m not trying to make out that there is such a thing as a perfect parent, because there’s not, and I’m not trying to say that raising a child alone in the wake of your partner’s death is easy, because it’s certainly not. Heck, I’m not a parent at all, so I have no room to talk. But in my humble opinion, the key to good parenting is love; as long as you’re there for your child, as long as you give them your support and make it clear that you’re on their side no matter what, then there’s no hardship the two of you can’t overcome together. Sure, your child might embarrass you at times – and they’re bound to disappoint you at some point – but you can’t handle it like Buck, pushing them out on their own to deal with the scorn as if you had nothing to do with them. I mean, if Chicken Little had committed murder or something then at least we’d have a discussion, but as it stands, Buck just comes across as a shallow asshole. I think this may be the worst Disney dad in the canon.

(Also, why is his last name Cluck? Shouldn’t it be Little? Is his son’s full name Chicken Little Cluck? The world will never know).

Abby Mallard discusses closure

As late as 2002, Sean Hayes was set to voice the Ugly Duckling character (who must have been male originally, in parallel to the female Chicken Little), but after the big gender swap, the role had to be recast with an actress. In addition to Holly Hunter, the filmmakers also considered Jamie Donnelly, Jodie Foster, Laura Dern, Sigourney Weaver, Geena Davis, Jamie Lee Curtis, Sarah Jessica Parker, Helen Hunt and even Madonna, but they finally chose Joan Cusack because of her natural comic flair.

Abby Mallard is Disney’s second fowl with that name – remember Abigail Gabble from The Aristocats? – and one of this film’s strongest characters. She is Chicken Little’s best friend and the voice of reason in her crazy world; this clarity combined with Cusack’s warm performance makes Abby easy to like, as she’s one of the few characters that Chicken Little can really rely on. I enjoyed their friendship as it felt very natural, but it also made me wonder whether there wasn’t something to the whole “Chicken Little” is a loser thing because he consistently ignores her advice.

Abby is clearly aware of her friend’s problems with his father and tries to help him work through it in the most “teenage” way ever – by consulting women’s magazines. In addition to trying to counsel him through this, she also supports him during his time on the baseball team and is quick to come to his aid when he encounters the piece from the alien spacecraft (see, Buck, this is how it’s done). Sure, she has a crush on him, but more than that, she cares about him as a friend, and given the awful world they’re living in, that’s something Chicken Little really needs.

Chicken and Abby kiss

The one thing that bugs me about Abby’s character is the way her budding romance with Chicken Little is presented – starting with its very existence. Why is it that whenever a male character has a female friend, the relationship is simply not allowed to remain platonic? I don’t want to get into the whole When Harry Met Sally debate, but it is possible not to fall in love with every woman you befriend! Still, that’s not the worst of it. Once Chicken Little suddenly (and randomly) confesses his own attraction to her with a kiss, Abby degenerates into a brainless ditz who’s pretty much done for the rest of the film. Oh, lord… why? One kiss, and the wise and articulate Abby is gone, given almost nothing else to do but giggle over her new boyfriend until the end of the film.

The portrayal of this character is problematic in a number of ways – it’s implied that she’s unpopular because she’s an “ugly” girl, for instance – but this particular aspect is especially irritating. I don’t know if the writers were just trying to get across a kind of “star-struck” puppy love vibe, but taking a proactive, intelligent character like Abby and turning her into a stereotypical giggling schoolgirl just because she’s in love does nothing to help this already poor film. And this isn’t even the worst example of sexism here!

Fish Out of Water skyscraper

For Fish Out of Water, the film’s editor, Dan Molina, performed his “voice” by vocalizing through a tube into a cooler tank full of water. Fish is another of Chicken Little’s misfit friends, and to put it simply, he’s a total lunatic. There’s really not a whole lot you can say about the guy – he spends most of the film off in his own little world, completely detached from whatever’s going on around him and always happy even in the face of imminent danger. He and Runt both serve as comic relief as well as giving Chicken Little another couple of friendly faces, but Fish is less well connected to the events of the story and so ends up feeling a little unnecessary.

That’s not to say I don’t like him; he’s often quite funny, although some of his jokes are so lacking in context that they end up more confusing than entertaining. His most significant role in the plot is when his antics wind up getting him trapped in the aliens’ spaceship, which is what leads the others to go inside and Kirby going missing. Once he’s been “rescued”, he just goes back to having fun with every situation he’s put into, which is nice and all, but doesn’t make him the most memorable character. His only other contribution is to decipher some of Kirby’s alien lingo, which is given no explanation at all – Fish just understands him, and that’s that. Come on guys, even Pocahontas had a flimsy hand-wave for that! It’s just another mark of bad writing; somebody needs to be able to understand Kirby for the plot to advance, so why not Fish, because he’s “crazy?”

Even according to the rules of this film’s universe, Fish’s inclusion feels a bit weird; sure, he’s got a water helmet, but I feel like a fish living on land like this would have to deal with a variety of other issues (such as lethal sunburn, for starters). Whatever, I’m overthinking it. He’s okay – I like him better than the other member of the friend group, that’s for sure.

Runt hyperventilating on ship

Director Mark Dindal was a big fan of the 2004-2005 series Dave the Barbarian, and so he originally wanted the show’s star Danny Cooksey to voice Runt of the Litter. For whatever reason, however, this didn’t happen, and the role went to Steve Zahn.

Frankly, I’ve never liked this character type – the neurotic hypochondriac who flies into a panic over the slightest thing. We’ve seen it before in the Disney canon with characters like Tantor, and the same year Chicken Little came out we saw it again with DreamWorks’s Melman from Madagascar, and they never fail to irritate me because they’re such lazy attempts at comedy. Much like Fish, Runt adds little to the plot and is presumably intended as comic relief, but many of his gags fall flat because they feel like mean-spirited jabs at real people; fat people, anxious people, even gay people (he’s coded rather effeminately), nobody’s safe from this film’s brand of cheap humour.

Runt is the most timid member of the gang (usually) and just goes along with whatever hare-brained scheme they might come up with – he’s the Peter Pettigrew of the group, for any Harry Potter fans. Although he supports Chicken Little, he’s not much help to him because, in his own words, he’s a “gutless flip-flopper.” In some situations, such as the exploration of the alien ship, he’s actually a hindrance, as his friends have to keep stopping to help him cope with his panic attacks.

For some reason, his “hidden depths” can only be unlocked by cheesy disco music; just bust out the Bee Gees and suddenly he’s an action hero, it’s so weird. His moment to shine comes in the climax, once the more capable Abby has been rendered useless by love – at this point, Runt briefly takes charge in rescuing Chicken Little and getting him and Kirby to the town hall for the reunion with Kirby’s parents. I wouldn’t really mind this character, if it wasn’t for one last decision he makes near the end…

Runt with girly Foxy

Now this is why I have a particular hatred for this character. To me, Runt is up there with Buck as one of the film’s worst people, all because of this one scene near the end after the alien invasion has been halted. In their mission to rescue Kirby, the aliens have been trapping the townsfolk in a kind of void until they find the kid, and one such victim is school bully Foxy Loxy.

Once Kirby is safe, the alien chief begins to zap the townsfolk back into the world, but something goes a bit wrong with Foxy; the chief says something about her brainwaves being “scrambled” and she is now a totally different person, a girlish southern belle. Naturally, the chief is prepared to fix this, but he’s stopped – by Runt. For some inexplicable reason, Runt takes it upon himself to decide that since he likes Foxy better like this, she should be left that way permanently – and everybody accepts this. Damn, this town is cold. Foxy was something of a local hero, everyone liked her just fine except for Chicken Little and his friends, but now this stupid pig decides he likes her better as a girly-girl and the townsfolk just passively let him do this!? This part infuriates me. Perhaps I should just move on to Foxy Loxy herself while we’re here…

Foxy Loxy baseball star

Foxy Loxy is about the closest thing this film has to an “antagonist,” but she’s hardly a villain in any sense. She’s basically a brutish jock stereotype, but as a female character she gives this tired cliché a refreshing twist. Although she’s clearly a bully and not at all a sympathetic character, picking on Chicken Little and going out of her way to humiliate him (even consoling Buck after one of the kid’s many sky-falling incidents), she’s also shown to be a popular and well-liked citizen who excels at sports and brings Oakey Oaks a lot of glory. Obviously I don’t like her, and I would have been glad to see her get her comeuppance at the end, but what actually happens to her is horrifying.

After the aliens accidentally brainwash her into a more traditionally “feminine” girl (right down to her clothes and hair), Runt of the Litter steps in and asks the alien leader to leave her like this, apparently just so he can have a dance partner or something. This fate might seem “innocent” enough to a child viewer, but it’s so disturbing the more you think about it. Foxy’s entire personality has just been replaced without her consent; it’s the kind of punishment that you’d normally only give to the most despicable and cruel of villains. I’m not sure even Frollo would deserve this! On top of this, the nature of what’s happened raises all sorts of unfortunate implications – that tomboys are weird and horrible, for instance, and would be much nicer if they would just conform and put on a pretty dress. There’s also the fact that it’s a male character who makes the decision to keep her like this; I’m sorry, but why is this the pig’s decision? Why does he get such total control over Foxy’s fate? This film is a huge step back for feminism.

I know that we’re not supposed to root for Foxy, but the writing is so bad here that I ended up feeling sorry for her by the end of the film. Short of death, I think hers has to be the worst fate of any surviving Disney villain in the canon – and she’s not really even a “villain” at all!

Kirby on the grass

The most significant of the remaining characters are the alien family, who are given the very “normal” names of Kirby, Tina and Melvin (Yougeddit? Because they’re aliens, right? And they’ve got human names? So funny). For what it’s worth, Kirby is quite sweet but a bit too generic, a basic “cute child” MacGuffin who serves more as a plot device than a character. (I have no idea why he required three different voice actors). Kirby is awakened by Chicken Little and co. when they explore the spaceship and he quickly forms a strange bond with our protagonist, mimicking his every move. When Chicken Little walks away, Kirby sprouts a set of legs and toddles after him, but the little alien soon gets lost after ending up outside (in a shameless rip-off of E.T.) and must then turn to his new animal friends for help in getting back to his parents. Towards the end, Kirby starts to feel like a second Fish Out of Water, another small orange optimist who’s eternally hyper and serves mostly as comic relief.

Melvin and Tina
Tina (yellow) and Melvin (red) with Chicken Little

As for his parents, they start out in the role of “antagonists” – sort of – as they set about chasing Chicken Little’s friends and then decimating the town in their quest to find Kirby. Only after their son’s rescue do they reveal themselves to be reasonable (and colourful) beings who were simply visiting Earth to harvest acorns… because why wouldn’t they be? Their most important scene plot-wise is their last, where they deliver a mass of exposition which validates what’s been happening to Chicken Little and thus fixes his reputation with the townsfolk.

As far as they go, they’re likeable if not all that memorable; Melvin is certainly a better father to Kirby than Buck is to Chicken Little. Even though Kirby is a toddler, Melvin is quick to listen to him when the kid pipes up in defence of his new friends, and of course he’s fiercely protective of him too, calling in a whole armada to help find him when he goes missing. (I doubt Buck would even call the police).

The designs and voices of the alien characters are among the better ones on offer here, even if they do look vaguely like extras from The Lorax. In fact, the alien parts are generally the highlights of the film from every angle, which I’ll get into further below.

Mr. Woolensworth

I wouldn’t be remarking on this character if it weren’t for one small fact: his voice. Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I’m sure you’ll remember my frequent references to famed actor, Sir Patrick Stewart. Since the late eighties, he had been wanting to appear in a Disney film but had been repeatedly prevented by scheduling conflicts with his Star Trek work; the missed opportunities included roles as diverse as Francis, King Triton, Cogsworth, Jafar, Zazu, Ratcliffe, Frollo, Zeus and Clayton. Finally, his time had come – he was available to appear in a Disney film at last. And what would that glorious, long-awaited role be?

A teaching sheep who does a silly-sounding roll-call once and never appears again.

Oh my God. This film actively wants you to hate it, I swear. What a waste of Patrick freaking Stewart.

Turkey Lurkey and townsfolk

The remaining characters fall into two groups: the rest of the populace of Oakey Oaks, and the Hollywood actors who star in the film-within-a-film at the end. The townsfolk are mostly forgettable extras, with only Mayor Turkey Lurkey standing out to me. One of the film’s only genuinely funny jokes was in presenting the mayor as a hapless puppet being controlled by government agents, a surprisingly funny comment on the often greasy and deceitful state of real-life politics. Turkey Lurkey has a perpetually nervous look on his face when he’s in public, as though he’s terrified of saying the wrong thing because he knows it’ll go on record and be used against him somewhere, it’s truly funny. This was also Don Knotts’s last role before his death, so there’s a certain poignancy about it.

Dog Announcer

The other townsfolk include an unnamed yellow dog who acts as both a news anchor and the announcer at the school baseball game (seems like an odd combo of jobs; wouldn’t the game have been an ideal opportunity to get more use out of the Mr. Woolensworth character?). The announcer, played by Harry Shearer, seems almost to be parodying the rotten attitudes of the other citizens at times, throwing out gleeful comments about “taunting” the losers of the game and openly despairing as Chicken Little goes up to bat. Aside from him, the adults also include Principal Fetchit (literally copied and pasted from A Goofy Movie, complete with Wallace Shawn) and the incredibly spiteful gym teacher who sorts the class into two teams – popular versus unpopular. Nice.

Among Chicken Little’s classmates, only two get any remote distinction besides his friends and Foxy Loxy. There’s Foxy’s sidekick, Goosey Loosey, a sadistic goose who serves as “the muscle” when Foxy herself can’t be bothered and for some reason can’t talk, instead honking like an actual goose. (Consistency? Who’s that?) She promptly abandons Foxy to her fate once the alien invasion starts to get serious, so clearly she’s a terrific friend to have in a crisis. In addition to her, there’s also… shudder… “Morkubine Porcupine”… who… well… he… I don’t really know what this character is doing at all. He simply appears at random every now and then to issue a deadpan monosyllabic comment on the proceedings, and that’s it.

Funnily enough, some of the most enjoyable characters in the whole film are the four “Hollywood” stars from the last scene. After Chicken Little and friends save the town from the aliens, the good folk of Hollywood (which apparently still exists in this universe) decide to turn his adventure into a film. I love the humorous nod to typical Hollywood casting conventions here; Chicken Little himself is being played by a towering brawny hunk in shades, while Abby has been sexed-up into an absurdly curvaceous vixen and Runt has become a hulking brute with a face even a mother wouldn’t look at. Fish’s actor also has a voice, and is far more level-headed than his counterpart! If only the rest of the cast could have been handled with this kind of wit.

Animation

Chicken Little will forever hold one credit to its name, in spite of its many failings: it was Disney’s first canon film created entirely on computers (Dinosaur, you’ll remember, incorporated live-action backgrounds and a few live special effects). To prepare for the switch, Disney chose about half of its animation staff to take the plunge and put them through an eighteen-month training programme, during which they learned to use the Alias (now PowerAnimator) software Autodesk Maya, which would serve as the main software used on this film. (The remaining animators were simply dismissed, as Disney had written off the whole medium of hand-drawn animation for the time being).

Goosey slingshotting Chicken

When designing the characters, Dindal wanted to emulate the “roundness” of the characters in Disney’s classic animated shorts from the forties and fifties, focusing particularly on the old Goofy cartoons of the time such as How to Play Baseball (1942). The aim was to get back to the old animation principles which had served the studio so well for decades, such as the gag favourite squash and stretch, but whether or not they were successful in recapturing this energy is a matter for debate.

The visual effects team was led by veteran Steve Goldberg, and they used a software program within the Maya system called “Shelf control” which provided an outline of the characters on the screen that could be manipulated with a series of controls before the final animation was completed, focusing on specific parts of the anatomy for maximum movement. The animators also used tablets to draw digital sketches of the characters, allowing them to plot out their movements in advance before transferring them over to the 3D characters. Later, the animators would use another program called “Chicken Wire”, which allowed them to model the basic geometric shapes required for the facial expressions with digital wire deformers (don’t worry, I don’t know what that means either but it sounds fancy). A further software development led to the creation of XGen, a program which allowed for the texturing of hair, cloth, feathers and leaves (and which, if I may say so, didn’t do a great job).

The characters were constructed of geometric polygons, and Chicken Little himself went through about fifteen different designs before they settled on the final one, with the large ovular “egg-shaped” head and glasses playing on the “cute” appeal of infants. His final character consisted of 5,600 polygons, 700 muscles and over 76,000 individual feathers, of which 55,000 were on his head. After Braff was cast in the role, his supervising animator, Jason Ryan, adapted Braff’s facial features into his work to combine the “dorkiness” and “adorability” that the filmmakers wanted. Ryan was impressed with Braff’s vocal abilities and noted that “He’s got this really appealing face and eye expressions.”

Chicken Little winks at Kirby

The supervisors, as well as Ryan, included Mark Anthony Austin for Foxy Loxy and Goosey Loosey, Doug Bennett for Runt of the Litter and Fish Out of Water, Tony Smeed for Abby Mallard, Nik Ranieri for Buck Cluck (poor Nik) and Dick Zondag for Turkey Lurkey and the Aliens.

Honestly, the animation isn’t great on the whole and thirteen years on, it’s really starting to show its age. I get that this was Disney’s first attempt at a wholly CG film and they were just getting used to the technology, but that’s still not a strong excuse. It was 2005; Toy Story was ten years old already and it scarcely looked any worse than this, with Pixar’s more recent efforts like The Incredibles looking absolutely gorgeous by comparison. The alien parts are handled somewhat better than the rest of the film, but they’re not enough by themselves to save it. Disney’s first foray into computer animation fails to impress – I think the characters in Dinosaur have actually aged much better.

Plot

There was always going to be a risk of bloating here, because the original Henny Penny tale is so scanty. During the rewriting process in the early 2000s, Dindal worked with three credited writers and nine other uncredited ones, throwing out at least twenty-five scenes to try and improve the character development and add more “emotional resonance” to the parent-child relationship (at least according to Wikipedia). Dindal admitted to encountering problems with the writing, saying that “It took us about two and a half years to pretty much get back to where we started… But in the course of that, the story got stronger, more emotional, and funnier, too.”

I suppose that’s his opinion, but frankly I don’t agree at all. The story here is muddled, poorly paced and filled to the brim with filler, not the least of which is the entire baseball arc, which adds little to the overall plot beyond giving Chicken Little a brief shot at popularity before the “sky falls” on him again and ruins it. The film suffers from lazy writing, as did its predecessor Home on the Range, with a whole string of pee jokes at one point just serving to underline how badly the writers were floundering. The jokes – particularly Fish’s – are constant and often lack the context required to make them properly funny. At one moment, for instance, Fish gathers up all of Abby’s magazines and randomly decides to make an Empire State Building out of them, from which he then swats at paper planes like King Kong – why? What’s the point of this? It doesn’t have anything to do with the scene it’s taking place in and is too random to elicit more than a blank look.

Buck disappointed in house

Chicken Little takes a simple folk tale and pads it out with a whole painful subplot about unresolved daddy issues mixed with a large helping of sci-fi alien madness (what was it with Disney and aliens in the early 2000s? This is the third film in less than five years to feature them). The exploration of father-son relationships was handled far better in films like Finding Nemo and Disney’s own Treasure Planet, and the alien-invasion thing was more entertaining in Lilo & Stitch, but what can you say at this point… at least they tried.

Cinematography

Some of the artists here had also worked on Dinosaur, which hadn’t allowed for much creativity with the backgrounds because they were all pre-shot on location in the real world. Therefore, for this film they looked to the staging, colours and lighting from Mary Blair’s golden period in the early fifties, aiming to recapture the eclectic style of such films as Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. The background artists incorporated a few matte paintings to render out the more naturalistic elements like the trees and baseball diamond, but these were then retouched with Adobe Photoshop to create the backgrounds seen in the film. For the lighting, a software called “Lumiere” was used to create the characters’ shadows and the effect of cucoloris (casting shadows or silhouettes).

Chicken Little scenery #1Chicken Little scenery #2Chicken Little scenery #3Chicken Little scenery #4Chicken Little scenery #5Chicken Little scenery #6Chicken Little scenery #7Chicken Little scenery #8

Interestingly, this wasn’t Disney’s first adaptation of this story. Way back in 1943, they had made a short version with the same title as war-time propaganda, in which Chicken Little is the victim of a Nazi-style fox who actually succeeds in thwarting all the members of the farmyard. The two versions don’t have much in common beyond the titles, but I thought it was worth mentioning – the short, at less than ten minutes, manages to be much more fun than this film.

Chicken Little opening book

The cinematography, like the animation, is for the most part unremarkable and even ugly. One of the most notable things about it is the way the film opens – as I mentioned in the character section, Buck narrates over a series of aborted openings which parody those of many better Disney classics of yesteryear. First it’s “Once upon a time,” then they set off the sunrise from The Lion King, then we have an opening book… ultimately, Buck settles on a distorted, coffee-coloured dissolve into a flashback of the sky-falling day, but all this messing about really does is remind you that you’re not going to be enjoying any of those wonderful classics. Nope, you’re sitting down to Chicken Little.

Chicken Little Indiana clip

There’s a lot of laziness to be found in the cinematography, too, such as its overreliance on the slow-mo effect, but one of the most jarring and random moments came in the prologue, where Chicken Little’s warning sparks a panic and throws the town into chaos. At one point, a water tower collapses and the drum goes careering through the streets, crushing cars and scattering pedestrians left and right. We cut to the inside of a cinema, where the animals are watching – of all things – the original, live-action, human-cast Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark (1981). This is all a set-up for a gag; the rampaging water drum comes bursting through the screen just as the boulder thunders towards Indiana, although this being a family film, it somehow jumps the audience and crashes through the front of the theatre without killing anybody.

The inclusion of this gag raises all sorts of awkward questions, such as how this film can exist in a universe where humans don’t seem to exist. It makes you wonder who these sentient animals are, and how they can exist in a world where Harrison Ford still made the Indiana Jones films in the same Hollywood which apparently produced the “Chicken Little” film we see them watching at the end. If the filmmakers were so set on using this joke, why didn’t they just animate an animal version of the Indiana scene? It would still have worked, if they did it well – just stick a grizzled dog in a fedora and people would know what scene this is parodying.

The film is at its most interesting visually in the alien parts, although even here there’s a sense that they’re just ripping off other popular alien flicks. The initial encounter between Chicken Little and the aliens is reminiscent of M. Knight Shyamalan’s Signs (2002), particularly once they start ducking and dodging through a cornfield, while the invasion bears some similarity to Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which came out a few months earlier.

Hollywood Chicken scenery

The best part of the whole film has to be the Hollywood parody scene at the end, where everything has been beefed up. Despite Buck’s insistence that the one thing Hollywood will never do “is mess with a good story,” the “writers” of this blockbuster have clearly stopped at nothing to inject every last scrap of the story with as much action and drama as possible. I love how over-the-top everything is, because it feels exactly like the kind of thing the real Hollywood does all the time – in the parody film, the whole adventure has been moved to outer space, Chicken Little and his friends have been aged up into battle-hardened adventurers, and the soundtrack even consists of a variety of disco classics as a way of incorporating Runt’s strange “superpower.” This was a genuinely funny moment and once again, I can only express regret that the whole film couldn’t have been this self-aware.

Soundtrack

Chicken Little’s soundtrack is just as lazy as the rest of the production, featuring a mixture of pre-existing songs and one specially-written number that lends it the feeling of a sub-standard DreamWorks film.

The only original number written for the film is One Little Slip by Barenaked Ladies (I bet the marketing department had a heart attack when they saw that name). While it does sound very “of its time,” it’s pretty catchy and features some well-written lyrics, summarising Chicken Little’s unlucky disposition. I hope you enjoy it, because all of the remaining songs are pre-existing numbers; no room for creativity in Chicken Little!

All I Know imagery #1All I Know imagery #2All I Know imagery #3

The second big song is All I Know by Art Garfunkle, a 1973 number performed here by Five for Fighting, which plays just after Chicken Little has mentioned joining the baseball team to his dad and gotten shot down in flames. During the song, we learn that Chicken Little’s mother, Chloe, has passed away and Buck is struggling to relate to his nerdy son without her help. Chicken Little, meanwhile, climbs up onto the roof to be alone in the typical Disney protagonist way, with a nearby father and son bonding over a game of catch in the cheesiest and most heavy-handed way possible to drive home how neglected he is.

The song itself is perfectly nice, a tender and melancholy ballad which sounds much better out of the film’s context; it suffers from the same problem we saw with Will the Sun Ever Shine Again in the last film, where the scene it accompanies is so blunt that the song ends up feeling manipulative. We get it, we’re supposed to feel sad at this part! WE GET IT.

Next, as Chicken Little goes through a “learning to baseball” montage, we get Stir It Up, performed with fantastic energy by Joss Stone and Patti LaBelle. Now, this one isn’t an original either, dating back to 1985, but Joss Stone was brought in specially for this version to add a little something extra and it’s a whole lot of fun. This one is definitely my personal favourite; it has a funky beat and is sung with such pizzazz that it’s hard not to sing along, the only time this soundtrack really got me enthusiastic. Perhaps they should have involved Stone and LaBelle in more of the film’s songs, as it could have really elevated the whole thing!

End of the World imagery #1End of the World imagery #2

The last big song is It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) by R.E.M. (yeesh, what a mouthful). A 1987 classic, this has become one of the film’s best-known songs, playing as it does over the alien invasion. It’s enjoyable enough, with a kind of country twang and some fast-paced lyrics that are easy to miss until you hear it outside the film – basically, like most of the other original songs on offer here, it sounds better on its own. The thing is, none of these songs are bad, it’s just that they don’t feel like they belong in a Disney film – this was when the studio was desperately trying to compete with DreamWorks by ripping off their more “contemporary” style, so the presence of so much radio fare is no surprise.

Spice Girls karaoke

The remainder of the soundtrack consists of John Debney’s score (serviceable) and a slew of classic songs, none of them less than nine years old. Thanks to Runt, there’s a point where we suddenly take a nose-dive into the world of disco; seriously, Chicken Little is worse than The Martian for chucking random snippets of Gloria Gaynor or Diana Ross at you. Among the songs featured, we have C+C Music Factory’s 1990 track Everybody Dance Now featuring Freedom Williams and Martha Wash (for a few seconds in a Fish gag), Queen’s beloved anthem We Are the Champions from 1977, performed by Zach Braff after the baseball win (subtle, real subtle) and, for some reason, the 1996 debut hit from the Spice Girls, Wannabe, which Joan Cusack and Steve Zahn are doing karaoke to before Chicken Little interrupts with the alien plotline. (That last one feels so out of place, like the filmmakers were trying to be “hip” but with material about a decade out of date).

Then we bust out the platforms and flared trousers for a series of disco staples, including the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive from 1977, Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive from 1978, Diana Ross’s Ain’t No Mountain High Enough from 1970 and Elton John and Kiki Dee’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart from 1976. The first two are sung by Runt in moments of crisis, first nervously and then more confidently as his adrenaline kicks in. The third is the original Ross version, used as part of the soundtrack of the film-within-a-film that the characters watch at the end, and the last is performed by the cast over the end credits (while Runt dances with his new “girlfriend,” the horrendously brainwashed Foxy… shudder). It’s all very cheesy, but hey, they’re all good songs so their presence can only help the film, however minutely.

Chicken Little credits dance

To finish, we then have one last cover of a classic over the latter half of the credits. This time it’s Shake A Tail Feather by the Five Du-Tones from 1963, performed here by the Cheetah Girls (minus Raven-Symoné), who were all the rage at Disney in 2005 (I was there… I remember). All joking aside, this one isn’t terrible either, although it’s a little bland and poppy like most of the other music.

I’ve already talked enough about the dreadful writing in this film, so there’s no need to belabour the point. As far as the voice acting goes, it’s rather spotty; some cast members, particularly Joan Cusack, do a great job with their roles, but others (like Steve Zahn and Garry Marshall) fail to bring much warmth to their already poorly-written characters and leave a bad taste in the mouth. Some of the minor cast members like Adam West (as Hollywood Chicken Little) and Harry Shearer (as the dog announcer) manage to do wonders with their limited screen time, but on the other hand, we have to suffer the indignities of seeing such talents as Patrick Stewart and Patrick Warburton wasted on trifling bit-parts. (Seriously, poor Patrick Stewart, all those years of dreaming of a Disney role and then he ends up in this).

Final Verdict

Chicken Little was dedicated to Disney stalwart Joe Grant, who had worked there on-and-off for decades as both an artist and story-writer (oh the irony; the one thing this film was crying out for was a decent writer). Its release date, originally set for the summer, was pushed back to the autumn for unknown reasons, perhaps to continue working on the persistent story problems.

At the time of this film’s release, Disney was having a bit of an awkward time with Pixar (and not just because the latter was handing them their asses on a plate every year at the box office). The co-production deal which had tied them together for so many years was set to expire after the release of Cars in 2006, and Pixar weren’t too keen on renewing it, threatening to look elsewhere for a more favourable distributor.

After a series of intense negotiations, it all came down to Chicken Little – if the film was successful, it would give Disney some leverage in forming a new contract, but if it failed, Pixar could then argue that Disney shouldn’t be producing computer-animated films. As it turned out, the film sort of did both, making plenty of money but failing to impress the critics. Ultimately, Disney would end up buying Pixar while allowing the company to retain much of its autonomy as an independent animation studio, giving Pixar the benefit of the Disney brand and its marketing while also preventing any of the executive meddling that had so troubled the recent Disney films.

The film finally arrived in late October of 2005, premiering at the El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles with the cast and filmmakers in attendance and followed by a “ballroom bash” at the Hollywood and Highland Centre. Along with its standard theatrical release in November, Chicken Little also became the first Disney release to be rendered and released in Disney Digital 3D, which was done courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic and exhibited via Dolby Digital servers in around 100 selected theatres.

In hindsight, this sounds incredible, but Chicken Little managed to open at number one in its first weekend, the first Disney canon film to do so since Dinosaur. Even more astonishingly, it went on to match The Lion King’s impressive $40 million take as the largest opener for any animated Disney film up to that time. It even retained its number one position into its second weekend, where it raked in an additional $31 million.

However, the cash-flow couldn’t sway the dissention from the critics, the majority of whom dismissed it for what it was – a bland, unoriginal, badly written and childish mess which fell far short of the usual Disney standards. Apart from some scant praise for the bright colours and the music, Chicken Little was one of the worst critical failures Disney had ever had. Its reputation has remained sour ever since and has even worsened over time, as the original audience of children have grown to realise how dreadful it really is (myself included; this was the second Disney film I saw in theatres, I think, and I must admit I liked it back then). These days, it is regarded by most as one of the worst entries in the Disney canon – twenty years after The Black Cauldron, the studio found itself at rock bottom once again.

Chicken Little came out on DVD in early 2006 in a single disc edition, and it was also the last of the canon films to be released to VHS, although only in a limited Disney Movie Club exclusive. A Blu-ray followed in 2007, with a 3D Blu-ray arriving in 2011.

Predictably, given the time period, it was originally set to have a direct-to-video sequel directed by Klay Hall called Chicken Little 2: The Ugly Duckling Story. This would involve a love triangle between Chicken Little, Abby and… a sheep. From France. Thankfully, John Lasseter put a stop to all that nonsense upon his arrival in 2006, so at least we were never subjected to this – one saving grace.

To summarise, I think you get the point by now – this is NOT a good film. Not in the slightest. Even Home on the Range had its strong points, with some nice original music and decent traditional animation, but there’s none of that here. Chicken Little just fails on every level, technical, artistic or otherwise, and if you’re over the age of ten you’ll find little to enjoy about it. The confusing mixture of baseball, disco and aliens leaves you bewildered and the poor writing robs most characters of any redeeming personality traits, resulting in a noisy and colourful mess with little substance or heart. The best I can say is that, to date, Disney haven’t yet managed to make anything worse than this (and hopefully this won’t change in the near future), so we can only go up from here. I’m giving this film the “honour” of being the only one in the canon to get a one out of five from me – this is the pits.

Next week, if all goes to plan, I’ll be tackling another troubled but less terrible CGI entry: Meet the Robinsons. I hope you can join me again, and don’t worry! We’ll be out of this 2000s slump soon. It’s not long now until the dawn of the New Revival…

My Rating – 1/5

References
I consulted my own books to research for this review, as well as some standard web sources:
The Art of Walt Disney (2011 ed.) by Christopher Finch
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13233084 – credit for poster
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhP0q9xW3qk – an excellent video essay on the film by The Mysterious Mr Enter
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicken_Little_(2005_film) – Wiki page
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0371606/ – IMDB profile

16 Replies to “Film Review: Chicken Little (2005)”

  1. Oy gevalt, to think that I actually used to ENJOY this film…

    One of the biggest problems for me, in retrospect, is the fact that it establishes rooting interest for its protagonist in absolutely the most mean-spirited way I have ever seen. If there is another animated feature that does in an even worse way, I haven’t seen it yet.

    Liked by 2 people

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