Netflix Pick: Chicken Little

In 2005, then Pixar chairman Steve Jobs and Disney CEO Robert Iger were in the middle of negotiating over the extension of the deal in which Disney marketed and distributed Pixar’s films, an already impressive roster including Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, and most recently 2004’s The Incredibles. The talks hinged on the release of Disney’s first CG animated film produced in-house: Chicken Little, a loose adaptation of the sky-is-falling children’s tale. If the film was successful, Disney could argue that they didn’t have to depend on Pixar for 3D content, giving them the upper hand in the negotiations.

Chicken Little made $40 million in its opening weekend, tying The Lion King for Disney Animation’s biggest opener. While it didn’t fare as well with critics, it struck some kind of chord with thirteen-year-old me and my brothers: we watched our DVD copy over and over again and quoted it endlessly. When I saw it pop up on Netflix, I had to check it out to see if it held up.

For the past five or so years, we’ve all gotten used to Disney Animation cranking out beautiful, well-made CG features. They’ve done this in large part by embracing the narrative and artistic sensibilities of Disney’s hand-drawn classics. Although they don’t adhere strictly to their source material, mega-hits like Tangled and Frozen are essentially earnest musical retellings of fairytales (Rapunzel and The Snow Queen, respectively).

Disney didn’t arrive at this strategy overnight. At the outset, they tried to replicate the success of the less traditional offerings from Dreamworks and Pixar. From its opening frames, Chicken Little makes a concerted effort to distance itself from Disney’s old fairytale tropes, mocking both the classic storybook opening introduction and the beginning of Lion King.

From there we’re thrown straight into the inciting incident, in which a diminutive high-school aged Chicken Little (Zach Braff) insists that he’s seen a stop sign shaped chunk of the sky on the ground, causing panic and destruction in the animal town of Oakey Oaks. Little’s embarrassed father Buck Cluck (Gary Marshall) plays it off as an innocent gaffe, but Little can’t quite live it down. This makes high school rough for him and his misfit pals Abbey Mallard (Joan Cusack, an Ugly Duckling), Runt of the Litter (a rotund piglet), and Fish Out of Water (a fish wearing a diving helmet full of water).

After an unlikely baseball victory puts Little back in his father’s and the town’s good graces, another chunk of sky crash-lands in his bedroom. Turns out it’s actually a lost cloaking panel from an extraterrestrial spacecraft. From there the story becomes a goofy take on a War of the Worlds style alien invasion plot.

Compared to the recent sweeping epics like Frozen or Moana and the serious social parable Zootopia, Chicken Little feels like a feature-length Saturday morning cartoon, but that’s what makes it so much fun. As in the best cartoons, the humor comes from the characters, who are much broader comedically than those in typical Disney films. Runt of the Litter, played by the always funny Steve Zahn, is a perpetual over-reactor with a penchant for classic pop music. The wonderfully expressive Fish out of Water is unfazed and delighted by everything that happens to him, up to and including being abducted by aliens. He gets some of the best one-off bits, including constructing an Empire State Building out of homework papers and re-enacting the climactic scene of King Kong while the other characters have a serious discussion. My favorite character as a kid was the snotty popular-girl antagonist Foxy Loxy, whose pre-dodgeball declaration “PUMP IT, PUMP IT, PUMP IT UP!” became a go-to celebratory mantra for me and my brothers. She’s still pretty damn funny.

In addition to the cartoony fun, Chicken Little actually has a decently affecting emotional core in the form of Chicken Little and Buck Cluck’s relationship arc. Countless animated films are about the importance of family, whether they be biological or those constructed from unlikely companions. This can often feel a little vague and tacked-on, but Chicken Little narrows the focus down to the relationship between a father and son, and the social expectations and anxieties that go along with it. 

The CG doesn’t hold up nearly as well as Pixar movies from the same time: the textures, fur simulation, and fluid simulations are all clunky and primitive looking by comparison.  Nearly all of the non-hero characters are variations on the same generic animal model. Some of these cookie-cutter characters even have speaking roles, like the announcer at the baseball game. But none of this really distracts from Chicken Little’s strengths in terms of humor and characters. It’s an awfully fun movie with a great heart. 

Stray Observations:

  • Some clever foreshadowing — check out the pattern on Chicken Little’s bedspread.
  • Disney originally produced Chicken Little as a Silly Symphony short in 1943, an allegory about the dangers of believing in rumors during wartime. It’s pretty dark — Foxy Loxy literally reads passages from Mein Kampf. If you look at the title card, you can see the same hexagonal pattern seen in the 2005 movie. Either that’s a weird coincidence, or the Disney designers took some inspiration from it.
  • This movie definitely relies heavily on musical montages, but I’ll forgive it because they’re so much fun. I had that Barenaked Ladies song stuck in my head for days.
  • It’s pretty incredible to compare Chicken Littles primitive animal crowds animation  to the crowds work in last year’s Zootopia, in which according to fxguide featured 64 different species and 800,000 different character models.
  • For some reason, Abbey Mallard’s reaction to the cloaking panel cracks me up every time: “Bizarre!”

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