Unlike cows, chickens can possibly work as leads for an animated movie, if Chicken Run taught us anything. However it’s obvious when Disney decided to adapt the famous fable about the chicken who thinks the sky is falling, they had no idea what to do. What they eventually decided on was a lowest common denominator comedy that doesn’t come close to getting a laugh, makes almost no sense, is a giant sell-out, and is pretty mean-spirited a lot of the time.
A year after young Chicken Little causes a local panic by claiming the sky is falling, townsfolk as well as his own father are still unwilling to forgive him for the humiliating incident. In order to make things up to his dad, he joins the school baseball team and against all odds actually manages to do well. But soon, a strange panel in the sky hits him on his head and he and his friends investigate an apparently alien invasion.
I feel like someone at Disney saw some DreamWorks films, Madagascar in particular, and said “that looks easy, I can do that!”. And as indifferent as I am to Madagascar, there was method in that films’ brand of silliness. Also DreamWorks can get away with more off-the-wall ideas and make even the least of them, seem smart. Chicken Little hard as it is to believe, is dumber than its premise makes it sound. Right from the start it’s trying to mimic DreamWorks with a stereotypical Jewish narrator interrupting a fairy tale opening. Not only is it blatantly cynical and embarrassingly unfunny, but the plot feels like its being made up as the film goes along. The baseball subplot for instance is completely pointless. It has no bearing on anything else in the film whatsoever and is only there to lengthen the runtime by fifteen minutes or so. Even if you said it reconciles Chicken Little with his father, by the next plot development his dad’s back to his same old shit. A more permanent reconciliation is shoved into the middle of the climax. Of course the story of Chicken Little is an incredibly short one -it exists in that same class as The Boy Who Cries Wolf, so there’s a lot to be extrapolated on. This movie takes it as far as it can with the most ridiculous over-the-top twist in the aliens (yet that’s still somehow not as a huge a reveal as the fact that this movie’s actually set on Earth). It very suddenly turns into War of the Worlds for some reason, which like a number of other developments like the absence of Chicken Little’s mother and his kissing Abby in the climax, comes the fuck out of nowhere! And unexpected changes in plot like this can work (again, DreamWorks did it with Bee Movie), but there needed to be better humour and writing as well as characters who are at least mildly likeable. Everyone in town is a dick and their constant bemoaning and berating of Chicken Little comes off as really mean-spirited. It’d be like if Chicken Little was Charlie Brown and everyone around him, even the adults, were Lucy Van Pelt. And the biggest offender is the title character’s father.
“Ace” Cluck as he’s called, is an asshole and a terrible parent. After the “sky is falling” incident he holds it against his son for a year, has absolutely no faith in him, and is constantly ashamed of him. And of course it’s this that drives Chicken Little’s motivations, and accounts primarily for his depression. He’s voiced by Garry Marshall which is a shame because regardless of what you think of his movies, he always seems to be such a nice guy. But he’s playing a character who’s proud only of his sons’ accomplishments that mirror his own. The lesson the film tries to get across is Cluck learning to believe his son, but it should really be Cluck believing IN his son. Otherwise how are we to know he’s not just going to shun him again after the next embarrassing moment? Chicken Little himself though is also not exactly likeable. He’s a pretty clichéd awkward but smarmy kid with his own posse of outcasts that we’ve seen before. He’s an idiot at times too, like when he refuses to tell his dad about the alien panel despite the fact it’s physical proof he was right! And that he happens to be voiced by Zach Braff doesn’t help matters. His friends, Abby “Ugly Duckling” who’s clearly a wannabe Dory voiced unfortunately by Joan Cusack, Runt of the Litter who’s every big fat idiot voiced by Steve Zahn, and Fish Out of Water who doesn’t talk and who’s name is his only joke, are pretty unenjoyable. Late in the film a small, cute (by which I mean marketable) alien shows up to be essential to the plot -also you know from the start these aliens aren’t going to be bad guys. Like Home on the Range it’s depressing to see some of the cast in this movie, like the late great Don Knotts as Mayor Lurkey Turkey (yeah, most of the characters have irritating names like this). In fairness, he’s the only character in this movie who’s almost funny. Also Wallace Shawn, Adam West, Harry Shearer, Patrick Warburton (why are you in so many of these??), and Catherine O’Hara. Amy Sedaris could have been switched out with literally anyone as the exaggerated fox bully, and worst of all is Patrick Stewart as Mr. Woolensworth. They finally got him in a Disney movie and it’s this?! It’s so painful to hear him list off an attendance roster of awkward names, couldn’t he be spending this time doing more American Dad! These are all characters with no personality and indeed I was actually kind of pleased when it looked like the aliens were vaporizing them one by one. But of course they didn’t go all the way with that.
Even among all this, one of the most excruciating parts of the movie is the music. The exploitation of pop songs in this movie is baffling. Even if they were just part of the soundtrack or used over montages, it wouldn’t be quite as bad; but there are three or four scenes where characters sing a whole section of a song like “We Are the Champions”, “Wannabe”, and “Stayin’ Alive”. It’s unbelievably distracting and the selling out is really sad for a film under the Disney banner. And why did they have to drag R.E.M. and Diana Ross into this?? Not only these songs, but there’s product placement throughout and the humour goes meta a few times which is very cringe-worthy. Early on its revealed a movie is being made based on Chicken Little’s earlier exploit (well at least they got that Hollywood’s out of ideas), and because of that they make a few in-jokes that are bad enough, but it takes on a whole new level at the end, punishing you by dragging you through another idiotic sequence before the credits. And you can’t appeal to the lowest common denominator without forced pop culture references, and some of these really boggle the mind. Some are a bit more typical like a Star Wars reference and some current magazine covers (and one incredibly lame bit where the live-action Raiders of the Lost Ark is being played just for a strategic boulder joke). But then there’s a joke about Alien, crop circles like the ones in Signs, Barbara Streisand, and a reference to Carole King that clearly no kid is going to get. Is Chicken Little trying to put in jokes for adults? Do they really think adults with working brains would derive any enjoyment out of this? Hell, I doubt most kids would. The animation definitely doesn’t age well and I wouldn’t be so hard on it, but this came out in 2005. Do you know what came out in 2004? The Incredibles! Granted Pixar animation has always been a step above, but even the original Toy Story looks better than this awful get-together of commercial mascots. There’s a joke about Chicken Little’s “movie” being direct-to-video which is what this should have been if made at all! In fact the plot and characters vaguely remind me of an early 2000s Nickelodeon movie. It’s pretty sad when your film can’t even live up to Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius!
Home on the Range was such a dreadful step down for Disney, but Chicken Little is definitely more insulting and obnoxious. An incredibly hard watch it’s got to be one of the worst movies I’ve seen, certainly from Disney. Every moment of it is grating and utterly unpleasant. This world of talking animals could make for an alright set-up -in fact it did. Though I didn’t like Zootopia quite as much as everyone else, seeing that it could have been this, I have a whole new respect for it. This was the last animated movie made by Disney before John Lasseter took over and began to get the studio back on track and thank god! This and its predecessor was the lowest Disney’s ever been and I’d recommend avoiding them like the plague.
Next Week: Meet the Robinsons (2007)