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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Chicken Little should’ve spent a little more time in Disney’s incubator.

The Sky Is Falling!

Disney is not afraid to show the crass end of its chicken
Disney is not afraid to show the crass end of its chicken

Disney’s first computer-animated feature without Pixar, the creators of such classics as The Incredibles and Toy Story, starts out with what is supposed to be a joke, trying to figure out the best way to start the story. A few frames recalling The Lion King are quickly scrapped then a hardcover fairy tale book circa Shrek and so many other animated movies is opened then quickly closed.

It’s kinda funny, but rather than merely being a joke, it foreshadows the movie’s lack of direction. It’s always trying to figure out what to do and sometimes the behind-the-scenes mechanics are so obvious, the screen is distorted by the steam from the Disney machinery overheating.

OK. That’s an exaggeration. But not by much.

Totally Derivative!

Plundering pop culture provides the movie’s main source of comedy, which oftentimes falls flatter than a fried egg. Granted, there are some genuinely colorful, lively moments in Chicken Little, but they’re spread out between lengthy dull segments and catastrophic lapses in logic.

When Chicken Little first alerts the citizens of the sleepy little hamlet called Oakey Oaks that the sky is falling, the alarm bells put into play a series of calamitous events that lead to the toppling of the village’s water tower. The tower’s spherical tank careens through the streets, crashing through buildings and, well, it calls to mind the runaway boulder scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Gosh. Before you know it the tank crashes through a movie theater showing nothing less than the original adventure of Indiana Jones. But this isn’t just a cartoon rendition. This is the actual boulder scene, complete with Harrison Ford, being played out simultaneously on the screen of the Oakey Oaks cinema.

It’s kinda funny, but rather than merely being a joke, it foreshadows the movie’s totally derivative nature.

Gloria Gaynor and the Spiders from Mars!

Chicken Little suffers from many problems, but its biggest is that it is only kinda funny and while Disney’s aim is to make smart, witty, computer-animated fare like those made by Pixar, the jokes here are out of whack. (A note to those in the ivory towers of Disney: just because something is computer animated instead of hand drawn doesn’t make it any smarter or wittier. Humor cannot be broken down into a numerical formula and simply cranked out by an assembly line of animation geeks.)

Barbra Streisand, for Pete’s sake, is the source of a joke that no member of the target audience will get. Yes, DreamWorks’ Shrek movies and Pixar’s entire library features humor that the kids won’t get, but it serve to keep the adults in the crowd engaged. Cracking a Streisand joke here is bound to elicit nothing more than groans from those who will admit to knowing who she is.

It’s also a sign that a movie is struggling mightily to be hip when it pulls out the Spice Girls in a karaoke scene. That’s so pre-CGI. So 1990s.

What I want, what I really, really want is to run like heck from the movie’s lightweight humor that would be more at home in the slimefest of some Nickelodeon TV show. One moment the characters are rattling off a half-dozen different words that mean “pee,” then in another moment they’re mimicking scenes from King Kong or War of the Worlds.

Drama Club!

Also on this movie’s busy pallet is a bit of drama. Chicken Little’s the product of a single parent home; while the fate of his mother is left untold, Chicken Little is reared by his father, who was a middle school baseball star.

Poor Chicken Little struggles for his father’s approval and the whole opening incident, with the false alarm about the sky falling, only extends the distance between father and son. Feeling the need to do something great and redeem himself in his father’s eyes, Chicken Little shuns advice to join the chess club or glee club and somehow manages to get on the baseball team.

Used primarily for warming benches, Chicken Little finally gets his big break and steps up to the plate. It’s one of a couple sequences that bend logic and fiddle with basic storytelling in order to artificially generate high drama.

The father/son narrative allows grown-up terms like “closure” and “Band-Aid solutions” to be tossed about, but the attempts at being smart and meaningful mostly fail. Only rarely is there a minor, somewhat witty observation about kids today, as when the click of clucks all pull out their cell phones and start yakking with friends.

Holy Chicken Feed!

While none of the characters is particularly memorable or even likable, the movie does boast a decent voice cast that includes Steve Zahn (as one of the movie’s most annoying characters, the morbidly obese Runt), Zach Braff (as Chicken Little), and Joan Cusack (as Ugly Duckling).

By far the movie’s best moments come at the very end. That’s when the previous 70 minutes are recast and Chicken Little’s adventures are brought to the big screen in a “Hollywood version” that totally rewrites everything. This over-the-top movie-in-the-movie is much more entertaining than anything preceding it.

Adam West (TV’s Batman) provides the voice for a very buff, steroid-fed Chicken Little. The characters careen around in pimped spaceships and the characters’ wimpy catch phrases are re-spun in incredibly heroic tones.

In other words, it’s nothing like the real thing. If only the whole movie was done in this same bombastic, aggressive style, Chicken Little would’ve been one enormously entertaining joy ride.

Don’t Forget the Merch!

Buried under the muck, or depending on your point of view, thrown in to meet some sort of educational programming requirement, is a decent little message, no pun intended: Every day is a new day.

Fine, but another message is that every movie is a chance for crass merchandising (and even then, merchandising jokes were done much more effectively in the Shrek flicks). Staying through the end credits won’t provide one last gasp of humor or animated “bloopers,” instead they’ll show something more chilling.

In addition to the usual “soundtrack available” line is the notification that Chicken Little video games are also available.