Chicken Little is a groundbreaking movie in more ways than one. Not only is it Disney's first in-house all-computer-generated feature, but on select screens, it will be presented in "Disney Digital 3-D," a brand-new system created with the help of George Lucas' special-effects company Industrial Light & Magic. It's revolutionary! It's state of the art! It's . . . not being screened in this format prior to opening day. Oops. In promoting its new product, Disney was a little chicken.
Watching the movie in 2-D when it was clearly conceived with an extra dimension in mind is like watching a porno with all the naked parts trimmed out -- you can tell when something exciting is supposed to happen, but have to imagine what you thought you were going to see. Chicken Little constantly features objects rolling, falling, or swinging toward the camera, and maintains a relatively minimalist composition in the background in order to help you focus on the stuff that's moving. Compared to recent animated fare like Wallace & Gromit or Finding Nemo, which packed the frame with minor details and gags, Chicken Little looks downright primitive. You might not notice with stuff flying out at you; otherwise, yep, you will.
It begins with the classic tale of paranoia. The eponymous excitable fowl (Zach Braff, a poor man's Michael J. Fox) freaks out, yelling that the sky is falling, causing mass panic from the likes of fellow townscritters Foxy Loxy (Amy Sedaris), Goosey Loosey (Mark Walton), and Turkey Lurkey (Don Knotts). Turns out it was just an acorn that hit Chicken Little on the head. Or was it? The movie suggests something more, and imagines that Chicken Little was unfairly maligned because his father Buck Cluck (Garry Marshall) wouldn't back him up. The fallen piece of "sky" is actually part of an alien cloaking device, and a full-scale invasion isn't far behind. But who will believe the one person who unnecessarily scared everyone before?
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Together with his small group of misfit friends, Chicken Little is the only one who can save the day. Those friends include Abby "Ugly Duckling" Mallard (Joan Cusack); a huge, ironically named pig called Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn); and Fish Out of Water (Dan Molina), who wears a diving helmet full of H2O and speaks in unintelligible burbles and sign language. (Fish is always grinning and seems completely out of it, which will undoubtedly inspire chemically impaired college students to declare that he's stoned.) In a cast full of stellar voice talents -- Patrick Stewart, Wallace Shawn, Harry Shearer, Fred Willard, Catherine O'Hara, Patrick Warburton and Adam West also chime in -- it's the barely verbal Fish who steals what little show there is in 2-D.
The jokes here are way less rapid-fire than we've come to expect from Pixar -- the company with which Disney has collaborated on Toy Story, A Bug's Life, and numerous other computer-made blockbusters -- and the now de rigueur references to other movies are rubbed in twice in almost every instance, just to make sure you get them. It isn't sufficient, for example, for characters to flee a large rolling metal object that resembles the boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark; they have to flee into a movie theater that's showing, yes, Raiders of the Lost Ark. When giant alien war robots on spindly legs begin tearing up the town with their death rays, the resemblance to a recent summer hit should be obvious -- but just in case, Abby Mallard declares, "It's like War of the Worlds out there!" Fish, for no apparent reason, builds an origami Empire State Building and climbs it; not only does he then make paper airplanes that knock him down, but Runt actually says, "It was beauty killed the beast!" right afterward.
Most egregious, though, is the theft from Independence Day, not just of the shadows of flying saucers, but also the ironic use of R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World As We Know It." If you're going to steal jokes, try doing it from someone wittier than Roland Emmerich, for goodness' sake. Director Mark Dindal made a genuinely funny Disney cartoon, The Emperor's New Groove, but that energy seems to have deserted him, possibly because he got stuck here with the screenwriters from Brother Bear.
If Chicken Little were in 3-D, shown in a Disney theme park, as you sit in motion simulators with mist spraying on you, the lame and obvious gags wouldn't be too much of a problem, nor would the fact that the animation isn't much better than that of the similarly plotted, way more fun Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. If Disney Digital 3-D is as impressive as they say, it may still be worth checking out. But frankly, I can't bear to sit through this again to find out.