09 December 2012

Disney Daze: Week 46: Chicken Little

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

Chicken Little begins with indecisive narration trying to find the best way to introduce the story of a child who raised a panic by declaring that the sky was falling. Unlike Woody Allen's iconic introduction to Manhattan which uses a similar conceit to transcendent effect, Chicken Little just wants to show us how hip and cool it is in comparison to your classic Disney features. In succession, star Zach Braff briefly entertains before throwing out the ideas of starting with "once upon a time", the epic savanna hymn of The Lion King, and the fabled storybook opening familiar from Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Then, instead of finding the perfect artistic solution to his creative conundrum, he basically just gives up and lets the movie play out.

This opening sequence is a perfect synthesis of the problems running rampant throughout Chicken Little. The film wants to avoid any attempts at looking staid or conventional but instead of actually attempting anything new, it just throws crap at the screen, hoping to distract us from its lack of ideas. For example, after Chicken Little is shamed by the town's people for his hysteria, a cottage industry grows up, making a quick buck retelling the tale of the crazy chicken in audiobooks and an advertised forthcoming movie. Chicken Little's father, a widower who was a local athlete and the popular inverse of his awkward child, comments on the ridiculousness of turning the paper-thin story into a feature-length film. Of course, this is intended as a winking nod to the audience, who have themselves purchased a ticket to said story, but it also feels like an omission of guilt. The filmmakers are working with the most innocuous germ of an idea. At one point, Chicken's friend Abby consoles him about the feature film, suggesting that if he's lucky it will just go straight to video.

Padding the film out are a nauseous mix of terrible thematic tunes by the likes of Barenaked Ladies and Five for Fighting, and every obvious, lazy pop song a children's film could hope for. Besides the requisite C + C Music Factory command for everyone to dance now, we get a Spice Girls karaoke party and an alien invasion cued to R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It". Worst of all, Chicken's portly, priggish, Porky Piggish friend Runt has a nasty habit of calming himself in times of trouble by singing empowering seventies anthems like "Stayin' Alive", "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "I Will Survive". At times the film feels like a veiled infomercial for a Time/Life boxed set containing all of the AM hits you know and loathe.

Meanwhile, the hucksters in the Yucks Department must have misunderstood their bureau's stated aim. For instead of trying to make us laugh, they choose most consistently to simply gross us out. As the rotund Runt bounces down a hill, he is accompanied by an orchestra's worth of belches, of every octave and timbre one could ever hope for. Later, we get the great privilege of listening in as Abby and Runt think up every conceivable synonym for "urine" their poetic minds can dream up. It is an outright travesty that this film was not even nominated for Best Original Screenplay. The best material the screenwriters can come up with is having a P.E. coach separate a dodgeball game into the popular and unpopular kids.

Yes, the music is horrible, the story threadbare, and the dialogue insulting, but these elements pale in contemptible comparison to the abysmal, appalling animation. Animation, the vanguard of the Disney legacy, an elegant, evocative medium of ink and paint and ones and zeroes, responsible for such masterful moments as Bambi ice skating and Figaro the cat swinging from an open window, is put to use in Chicken Little to create the largest rogues' gallery of ill-shapen, unpleasant looking creations the eye has ever seen. It is a testament to the film's drunken drive for disfigurement that the character of Abby, a buck-toothed version of the fabled Ugly Duckling, does not stand out from the crowd. She looks quite normal next to this community of monstrosities.

The film follows Chicken's path as he tries to redeem himself in the eyes of the town and more importantly, his father. When far-flung aliens arrive he finds his opportunity. In trying to return a three-eyed alien child--that in keeping with the film's dedication to the uninspired, looks like a rough-draft rejected from Pixar's Monsters, Inc.--to its mechanized, rampaging parents, Chicken proves his mettle. The apocalyptic alien attack brings father and son together as Chicken Little becomes a resourceful, fearless hero. The town forgives Chicken and surprise, a dance number ensues.

Chicken Little concludes with the town gathered at the cinema to watch Hollywood's adaptation of the preceding events. The film within the film is an overblown action extravaganza with a tall, muscular Chicken Little and a sexy Abby. The joke is that Hollywood will always mess up the heart of a story by throwing in explosive bells and titillating whistles. But it seems as though the filmmakers do not realize that they are guilty of the exact same shenanigans. Instead of focusing on the emotional story of a father accepting his awkward son, they decided to populate their film with the laziest pop culture references and overplayed pop hits of the 1970s. Chicken Little is just as generic as the films it winkingly nods at. It is a complete and utter failure of a picture, an eighty-minute audio/visual babysitter that condescends to even its most juvenile demographics. This piece of animated pablum serves no artistic purpose. It is a big, bold bruise on the Disney canon. Now would be a good time to panic. 

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