I went on a tirade a couple years ago about what I considered one of the worst Disney animated films in their currently 83-year history, 2011’s Winnie the Pooh. I know I’m one of the few who dislike it, especially as a Pooh fan, and if you’ve read my Home on the Range review, you know while I don’t care for it, it’s a stretch to say I hate it, unlike a lot of other fans. I can be a bit of a contrarian as a Disney hipster, but there are movies where I do tend to agree with the average Disney fan. Chicken Little is one such case. I despise this movie, like most everyone else, and rank it alongside Winnie the Pooh as the worst animated Disney film.
Based on the early-nineteenth century Danish folk tale (Yeah, and The Emperor’s New Groove is based on The Emperor’s New Clothes. Bite me.), the story is a cautionary tale about the dangers of paranoia, fear mongering, hysteria, and gossip. The main character, often named Henny Penny or Chicken Licken, gets knocked on the head with an acorn, and believing the sky is falling, alarms the barnyard into a frenzy, and the last person they alert is the wily, hungry Foxy Loxy, who plots to take advantage of the suggestible, delicious fowl. The ending in various forms often changes between Henny either figuring out the fox’s plan before it’s too late or they don’t. In the end, the point is the same: don’t believe everything you’re told, and panic can seal your fate.
And if you can believe it, Disney actually put this fable to good use and adapted it once before…in 1943!
No kidding! During the dark and troubling Second World War, the Walt Disney company was pumping out all sorts of propaganda shorts to boost morale at home, which included a retelling of Chicken Little. In this version, the wily Foxy Loxy plots the birds’ demise from the beginning. After assessing the risks of breaking in, he pulls out a psychology book and reads some very sadistic-leading text (“Undermine the faith of the masses in their leaders”. The heck?!). And explicitly targets CL to knock him on the head with a piece of wood, put the idea in his head, and panic him. At first, the plan is defeated when the mayor calms the populace down, but Foxy takes to whispering gossip to undermine the mayor’s authority, and pumping up CL’s ego. Naturally, Foxy gets CL to have everyone flee to Foxy’s cave…and he eats every single one of them! Yes, like Education for Death and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the bad guy in a Disney cartoon totally wins! However, that worked because it was teaching a valuable wartime lesson: loose lips sink ships, and panic can only aid the enemy. It’s worth noting in the original draft of the cartoon, Foxy was supposed to be toting a copy of Mein Kampf, putting maybe too fine a point on the symbolism.
I don’t know how or when they decided to adapt Chicken Little for the new millennium, but one note from production is a tad alarming: it was a pawn in a wager for Disney. I wish I was joking.
As the aughts progressed, more animated Disney films began losing steam at the box office and were getting eclipsed by computer animated films from Blue Sky (The Ice Age franchise), Dreamworks (Shrek, among others), and their own beloved stepchild, Pixar. Eisner, driven mad by cost-cutting measures and receiving less money back in a mobius loop circling down the drain, was looking to extort more and more money from Pixar, who at the time, was in a limited release deal set to expire after the release of Cars in 2006. Lasseter and company, more and more annoyed at this, reminded Eisner they didn’t have to take his crap and threatened to partner with another studio who’d gladly have them, and Disney would have no reliable cash cow anymore. I imagine Eisner bought Lisinopril in bulk during that time.
The film was set to be Disney’s first all-CGI Movie (Dinosaur has used real backgrounds), and the challenge was as such: if Chicken Little proved to be a hit, it would prove to Pixar Disney still had the goods to make their own successful movies still, and would renew their faith in the tradition of great Disney animation, and thus renew the contract. If it bombed, then Pixar would be given further leverage that Disney did not have what it took to make good movies anymore, and they would continue to shop around for a new distributor.
If you’d like to know who won…me too. Chicken Little cost $150 million to make, but raked in $314 million. Not the worst, but not exactly a bomb, either. Not that it mattered: Eisner’s reign came to an end in September of 2005, just two months shy of the release of Chicken Little. Iger repaired relations with Pixar, and by February of the next year, Disney absorbed Pixar and placed founders Steve Jobs, John Lasseter, and Ed Catmull into promoted positions within the company, and proved to be one of the better moves in Iger’s tenure, as we no longer saw such terrible wrecks like Chicken Little or Home on the Range, but hits like Tangled, Wreck-it Ralph, and Frozen.
Anyway, you’re probably sick of hearing me rambling, so let’s cringe creepily at the colossal clunker like the clucking clustercrap this is.
The plot: Chicken Little (Zach Braff) accidentally and indirectly destroyed his hometown of Oakey Oaks by warning everyone the sky was falling. Unable to prove his claim, his father, Buck Cluck (Garry Marshal) tells the town it was just an acorn. CL is regarded as a social pariah.
A year later, CL is still the most hated citizen of Oakey Oaks, his father insists he lay low to ward attention to himself, and CL is determined to rise above the scorn of the town and earn his dad’s respect. Unfortunately, CL is colossally unlucky, small, and no one gives him a token of consideration. His only confidants are his friends and fellow misfits Abby Mallard AKA Ugly Duckling (Joan Cusack), Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn), and Fish out of Water (Dan Molina). CL decides his best bet is to try to try out for the baseball team. After a grueling season, the team makes it to the playoffs and CL hits the game-winning grand slam. He’s hailed as a hero and his father finally seems proud of him.
Of course it isn’t that simple. That very night, CL is knocked upside the head – again – by not an acorn or a piece of the sky, but a cloaking panel of sorts that leads him and his friends to an alien spaceship. They believe the aliens are set to invade and destroy Earth, and thus our heroes have to find a way to stop the invasion, save the town, and hopefully not lose the populace’s confidence yet again.
How’s the writing?: Hoo boy, this script absolute dreck. I can understand a flatly written script. Because that means the writer(s) did not put much effort into creating the story. But while the story is not written lazily, it shows a naked, pessimistic view of human nature the writers seem to hold. In fact, most everything wrong with the movie can be seen in the movie’s impetus.
1. Buck Cluck opening the movie with snark and meta jokes. Buck tries to open with a sincere, if cliche way to start telling the story, before a loud bang jars the audience, and he sneers at the trope. He tries to open with The Lion King‘s famous intro, and dismisses it, commenting it “felt a little familiar”, and lastly groaning over the “opening the storybook” as similarly overdone. He digresses by showing an unvarnished look at the inciting incident. Right away, the movie wants to be Shrek-level of cheek, and as such gets us in the mood to not really care about the stakes, emotional or otherwise.
2. The School bell. I grew up on the eastern seaboard, in New Hampshire, throughout the nineties. New England in particular is quite of its colonial roots and shows off its antiquated architecture on its proverbial sleeve. The only schools I knew of that still had bells were preserved as historical landmarks and not in use as modern schools. And because these bells were so old, they weren’t being used for their original purposes anymore due to fear of damage. CL uses the school bell to get everyone’s attention, and is deemed the premier warning system for the town to where even the local weatherman runs off live TV in a panic upon hearing it.
The problem is this world is supposed to be 2005. Kids have flip phones they chat through, there are laptops, and fashion magazines with pop psychobabble. I guarantee no modern school had a functional bell that somehow doubled as a warning system. Just imagine if a movie that was aimed at a teen demographic showcased the use of cassette tapes or typewriters.
3. The dumb, obsolete animal jokes. Remember those old Looney Tunes or vintage cartoons where animals tend to have the same jokes done to death, over and over? You know what I’m talking about; where cats and dogs hate each other, dogs love bones and hydrants, rabbits have millions of offspring, and that goats eat literally everything? Yeah, those gags that have been done over and over to the point where they’re not really funny anymore and just cheap, unoriginal jokes? Chicken Little is full of those.
When CL starts alerting the town, we cut to a pair dogs, one eating a bone, and one drinking out of a water bowl. When they run out, the bone-chewing dog buries it at the sidewalk outside the diner, pants proudly, then runs off. A mother rabbit grabs her child out of a stroller, only to show it’s just one out of millions of squalling baby rabbits that literally gets its own callback later in the scene. A dalmatian is the fire chief. Several dogs are in a car and all of them have their heads out the windows. A dog chases his tail during the ball game. These jokes are so damn tired and lazy you forget this movie was written after the turn of the 21st century!
4. Chicken Little did not tell anyone what was going on. Okay, now the really egregious stuff. Hypothetically, if you wanted to alert a large group of people that they were in danger, what would you say? If you were smart, you’d preface with an explanation of the situation like “There’s a fire!”, or “Theres a gunman on the loose!”, or “we ran out of toilet paper!” And then proceed to calmly get everyone to safety. If you were CL’s naive age, and the situation was more dire, you might just yell out “Everyone exit out of the building now!” However, CL instead just cries out “You’re all in danger! Run for cover! Run for your lives!” Instinctively, every citizen of town…starts running in panicked circles, screaming, and causing every accident known to man.
I am not unfamiliar with panic. Heck, I often freeze up as soon as I hear someone raise their voice at me, unable to properly process what to do next. But I’ve never been so dimwitted that I began running in random directions. Even in situations like fires, people usually have one clear goal: get out of the building. When riots get ugly, civilians usually run opposite of where the danger is. But this depiction of blind panic is just outrageously dumb.
5. The town blames him for what they literally did through their own panic. Now the tipping point for this movie: the outright vitriol the townsfolk have for CL. Again, I get the real-life application here: if I stand in the middle of traffic and cause a ten-car pileup, yes, I’m responsible. But it makes sense if all those drivers swerve to avoid me. What doesn’t make sense people running around like idiots senselessly…and turning it around to blame on CL. I’d say it’s the equivalent of me stepping into traffic and every driver made a U-turn, drove a mile up the road, and drove into a lake.
Worse still, it’s not handled particularly with maturity. If Buck was forced to pay for the damages and the town cast glowers on CL and his father, sure. But instead, we get this childish perspective that news anchors will flatly refer to the incident as “Gibberish of an insane person”, a movie gets made about him, and a massive assortment of merchandise cashes in on the trend on what a stupid dum-dum CL is. Look, I get what it’s saying, but it’s such a flaccid and mean-spirited take on how petty and vindictive people can be. I’ve grown up in small towns where your mistakes follow you for years, but these naked displays of condescension shown feel like the movie was written by someone who peed their pants in school in second grade and their high school yearbook was filled with references to it. “I made one mistake and everybody’s been so mean to me and they hate me and it wasn’t my fault and they’re just poo-poo-headed jerks!”
Does it give the feels?: You can tell they tried, particularly in CL’s relationship with his father, but it really doesn’t work.
Buck is clearly mortified by the incident and doesn’t know how to handle it or his son’s emotions. He doesn’t blame CL for what happened, nor does he stand up for his son when the town turns against him. After Buck picks him up from school, we get a slow, dark moment of the two sulking apart once they get home, Five for Fighting song playing, and Buck bemoans the loss of his wife because of course the mom’s dead in a Disney movie.
But I don’t get the impression that Buck is just some overwhelmed father who doesn’t know how to talk about feelings and crap. He comes across more like he takes far more stock in what the town thinks of him and his son more than his own son’s self-worth. He tries so hard to distance himself from CL repeatedly until the kid redeems himself in the ball game and at the end. He waffles on this a lot and you see it when his son tells him he wants to try out for baseball. The proposition startles him so bad he nearly swerves into oncoming traffic and tells him to “not get his hopes too high”. While he doesn’t hinder CL’s training, he never once is shown to be helping him. The whole point of it was Buck was a baseball MVP back in school, so CL hopes playing baseball would earn his father’s respect, but he never gives him any pointers, no practice in the backyard, nothing? His comment about his son’s hopes come off less like “because you’re small and the town hates you, I wouldn’t expect to be drafted to the major leagues anytime soon” and more like “No one will let you play and I’m not going to advocate for you”.
Who makes it worth it?: When I first saw this back in college, I loved three characters: Fish, Kirby, and Morcubine Porcupine. I’ve lost all interest in them these days. Fish was odd and spunky, constantly in his own world, but this was to the detriment of the story. There’s a moment where Abby is doing her best to support her friend’s emotional strife, and during this time, Fish has made a replica of the empire state building and biplanes out of magazine pages so he can reenact King Kong because…random?
Kirby the child alien was cute, but he got more spunky and kind of obnoxious as the film climaxed. Morcubine had at least the benefit of having little screentime and only saying three words, but he had zero purpose anywhere other than as the running joke of being a cool kid.
The casting in this movie is definitely out there. I loved Zach Braff as CL and he works, but Joan Cusack just didn’t channel “preteen dork” as much as they wanted us to believe. It was one of Don Knotts’ last movies as mayor Turkey Lurkey and he contributed nothing. Same with Wallace Shawn’s principal Fetchit. Similarly with Amy Sedaris as Foxy Loxy. Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara are kind of funny. Patrick Warburton is always a treat. Adam West as Hollywood CL is funny. But the biggest waste is Patrick Stewart as professor woolensworth, a stuffy sheep teacher who instructs the class to speak mutton (The joke is literally saying the word “baa” for every word). Look, Stewart is a magnificent actor, and between this and the poop emoji, it annoys me that Patrick agrees to doing roles like this. This is the man who lists his inability to audition for the role of Jafar in Aladdin due to conflicts with his Star Trek: The Next Generation schedule in 1992 as one of his greatest career regrets…but hey, at least he has this.
Wait, aren’t I supposed to be talking about the characters I do like? Um…I guess CL himself is pretty good. I do like his spirit and gumption. He reminds me of Charlie Brown, just some kid just trying to do his best in a world that can’t stand him. Much as I dislike the nastiness of the world around him, I guess I can respect the little guy just trying to do his best.
Best quality provided: Um…I want to say the animation is good for what it is. It’s far from groundbreaking, but it isn’t the worst. The bonus features bragged how they first began working with software that allowed greater flexibility in rendering stretch and squash animation.
For non-animation buffs, stretch and squash is the principal that lends elasticity to animated characters. While we humans don’t have the same rubbery principals, failure to implement stretch and squash can lead to rigid and unnatural-looking movement, particularly in regards to volume and density. Early in the movie, Goosey Loosey grabs CL by the comb and shakes him violently before slingshotting him to a window with a splat. If you think it’s hardly impressive, watch Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas (2004), and in particular, the scene in Donald’s Gift where Donald is getting abused by his easy chair, or in Christmas Maximus, where Goofy slips on the ice and crashes into a pole. Unable to readily apply stretch and squash to its proper potential, watching classic Donald Duck and Goofy slapstick feels lifeless and unengaging. In Chicken Little, the software was able to capture the density and mass of the characters perfectly, and helps just that much in bringing life to Oakey Oaks.
What could have been improved: I wanted to put these in the “How’s the Writing?” Portion, but I overwhelmed that section enough as it is. Here I wanted to outline the other problems I had with the script.
One was its reliance on fat jokes and a smattering of pseudo anti-homo jokes directed purely at Runt. Runt, a massive pig with an inferiority complex, is effeminate and morbidly obese, all stemming from the joke that he is a pig and a runt of the litter. He gets stuck in his desk, he belches when he bounces, and has to exert effort hopping onto sidewalk curbs. He is cowardly and meek, which is further enforced with his love for traditionally “women’s” music: Staying Alive, Wannabe, Ain’t no Mountain High Enough, I Will Survive, and his mother even refers to his “Streisand collection”. It’s a textbook look at the early-to-mid-aughts in how to make gags based on a coded gay character who doubles as fat. Ugh.
Speaking of the music, it’s also a sort of jukebox musical. There are several songs like the ones mentioned above where the characters sing for…reasons. We are the Champions, Shake Your Tail Feather, and Don’t Go Breaking my Heart are part of the movie’s soundtrack without real reason. At least Guardians of the Galaxy used hit songs that hadn’t been overplayed on radios for 25 years. There’s a couple of original songs, with One Lttle Slip by the Barenaked Ladies being the only real headliner, and even I got sick of that one pretty quick.
The pop culture gags even feel lazy. A clip of Raiders of the Lost Ark plays in a theater to preface a joke with the boulder-shaped water tower crashing through the screen. Like, they’re watching a human in a universe where everyone’s an anthropomorphized animal? Actually, here’s by far the best example of just how lazy the pop culture jokes are…here’s the DVD box cover art:
And here’s the poster of a movie that came out in 2002, 3 years before the movie came out:
So Men in Black was popular-ish back then and this movie involves aliens. So? CL never wears a suit or sunglasses. And they parody not the beloved original, but the one that shoehorned Frank the Pug into the starring role for marketability? They could have invoked The X-Files or War of the Worlds and it would have made just as much sense (Oh wait, Abby does invokes the title of the latter late in the movie. My bad.)
Verdict: What else is there to say? It’s bad. I am fine with a plucky outsider story of a boy who tries to prove his worth with sports and is soon forced to deal with an alien invasion in what is a simple misunderstanding, but this movie crams in lazy pop culture jokes, a disgustingly mean-spirited view of humanity, with unoriginal names, and a colossal waste of big name talent. I give this stinker two cloaking panels smacking these obnoxious cluckers upside the noggin out of ten.
Now let’s never speak of this one little slip again.