Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Film Review - Chicken Little

Seeing how dependent the Walt Disney Company is on its experimental computer animated project Chicken Little to succeed at the domestic box office in order to retain any lasting hope of gaining some bit of leverage over their former collaborator, Pixar Animation Studios, you look back on the legacy former-Chairman/CEO Michael Eisner left behind and realize how much he truly screwed up. His ill-founded stubbornness plagued many areas of the corporation giant, but no more evident then in the hollowed animation branch of the company, the one on which the company was essentially founded upon and from which much of the corporation’s success had been generated up until now. Eisner’s rather unwholesome relationship with Jeffrey Katzenberg (currently the president of the animation division of Dreamworks SKG), mismanagement and piss poor selection of the releases of the motion picture unit’s live-action division, and the company’s precarious dependency on the success of Pixar’s projects for revenue all contributed to the state Disney finds itself in now. However, with Michael Eisner, Job’s main contention for stalling negotiations between the two entertainment giants, gone, though certainly far from forgotten, a ‘peace deal’ can hopefully be reached. Nonetheless, it may end up costing Disney a bit more then had Eisner not screwed thing up in the first place, particularly if Chicken Little is not quite the hit it wants it so desperately to be.

The story for Chicken Little is surprisingly original, truly a credit to Walt Disney Pictures and the film’s creators, with a balancing of heart-warming and emotionally inviting family values with analytic humor for each member of the family. It is not nearly as amusing as The Emperor’s New Groove, a previous animated feature from the creators of Chicken Little released several years ago, but its own unique brand of off color humor makes it memorable nonetheless. There are quite a number of classic film references, subtly done of course, including allusions to scenes from King Kong, Saturday Night Fever, Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, Alien, and, best of all, a purely delightful take on the memorable scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Also, present throughout the film are additional references to the antics of the animal world. These astute jests include a bull running a china shop, birds ramming into store windows, dogs ordering up a bowl of water or kibble at a restaurant, fish driving fishbowl cars, etc.

Zach Braff, best known for his work on the NBC television comedy Scrubs and Garden State, his independent directorial debut, does an impressive job as the antagonist of the story, Chicken Little. Braff should be praised alone for actually giving Chicken Little a distinctly different voice rather then simply applying his own to the character as so many actors have done in the past. There clearly an emotional depth to the character, based on Braff’s voice over performance, that really makes you root for the little guy. Gary Marshall who has been known mainly for his work behind the camera for such films as Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, and the Princess Diaries series provides powerful emotion content to the role of Buck Cluck, Chicken Little’s single father who is still reeling from the embarrassment of the “sky is falling” incident less then a year earlier. The scene near the end of the film in which he admits to his emotionally exasperated son that he hasn’t been the best father to him having dismissed his claim that the sky was falling, which now proved to be true, and for projecting the idea onto him that he had to earn his father’s love, respect, and admiration. The scenario may seem a bit corny and it does greatly reduce the action and the pace of the film at this point but the voice talents of Marshall and Braff make it work effectively. Runt of the Litter, voiced by Steve Zahn, and Fish Out of Water, voiced by Dan Molina, editor of Chicken Little who performed the character by vocalizing through a tube into a water cooler tank full of water, act as comedic relief for the film and their scenes are the absolute highlight of the movie. Chicken Little himself and the rest of the cast are decent in their own right but these two will likely be the most memorable characters to emerge from this picture. And, as a bit of an added bonus for Chicken Little, the film boasts an impressive array of comedic voice talent including Patrick Stewart as Professor Woolensworth, Patrick Warburton an alien police officer, Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara, Adam West, and acting veteran Don Knotts as the comically indecisive mayor of Oakley Oaks, Turkey Lurkey, who is given direction via cue cards created by his secret service entourage.

Overall, Chicken Little, though arguably not Disney’s best work to date and no where quite near the magnificence of what Pixar Animation Studios has released, is cute and a bit gratifying its own unique way and marks a brilliant departure for Walt Disney Feature Animation from the now defunct days of traditional animation and into the fascinating new genre of computer generated animation. It is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination to be certain but it is, however, a start and that is what truly matters most for Disney at this point. With Michael Eisner gone and a new CEO is calling the shots from on high, though many still suspect him to be nothing more then an Eisner crony, Walt Disney Feature Animation can hopefully pull itself out of the gutter it has been lying motionless in for years now, Brother Bear and Home on the Range being recent examples of this, dust itself off, and begin anew. The film boasts an eloquent musical score by John Debney, albeit one that is certainly not a memorable as it should have been coming from Walt Disney Feature Animation. It’s selection of songs which appear on the film’s soundtrack also hit quite a few notes with audiences. The best song on the list has to be Bare Naked Ladies’ “One Little Slip” which, when see in conjunction with the film on the screen, should be nominated for Best Song at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. Five For Fighting’s “All I Know” and R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” are other notable highlights. Sadly other songs on the soundtrack, specifically Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe”, feel as though the story was built around their inclusion rather then the story being written and having them slipped in. They are not badly place mind you; it just feels as though they are a bit forced. Chicken Little is Walt Disney Feature Animation’s first full departure (Dinosaur was not produced by WDFA and was only partially computer generated, the backgrounds were live-action templates) and though it is not quite the holiday blockbuster many were expecting, it is a significant stepping stone from future CGI-animated project like Meet the Robinsons and American Dog, from the creators of Lilo & Stitch, are sure to pick up from.

My Rating: **** out of 5 (Grade: B+)