You know that nightmare of appearing at school in your underwear? That happens to poor Chicken Little (voice of Zach Braff of TV’s “Scrubs”), a tiny little chick with big glasses perched uncertainly on his beak, but he has the heart of a lion. And Disney’s first-ever fully computer-animated movie movie has a wonderfully fresh and unpretentious energy that is a lot of fun to watch.
How does his story begin? Disney signals this film’s departure from the grander traditions of the past by addressing that question head on. Should we try the old but reliable “Once upon a time….?” No. How about a huge orange sunrise over the Serengeti? It’s been done. The classic beginning — a leather-bound book, pages fluttering artistically as it opens to a lovely old illustration? Nope. This one is going to begin right in the middle of the action, with Chicken Little ringing the town’s alarm bell and everyone in the town of Oakley Oaks getting, well, very alarmed. That underpants incident turns out to be the least of his problems.
It turns out that what Chicken Little thought was the sky falling on his head was just an acorn. At least, that’s what his father (voice of Garry Marshall) sheepishly admits in his apology to the town. He doesn’t believe his son’s story about being hit by a stop sign-shaped piece of the sky.
Chicken Little is sure he can start over and prove to everyone that he’s not a lunatic and a loser. But things get off to a bad start on the first day of school when he misses the bus and loses his pants. Mean girl Foxie Loxie (voice of Amy Sederis) keeps cough-insulting him. But Abby, the kind-hearted and wise Ugly Duckling (voice of Joan Cusack), a merry little fish (with a diver’s helmet to keep his head in water), and the anxious but sweet-natured piggy named Runt (voice of Steve Zahn) believe in Chicken Little and he believes in himself.
That’s how he knows that he can prove himself to everyone by becoming the star of the baseball team, just like his father. “All I need is a chance to do something great and my dad will finally have a reason to be proud of me.”
There is one very small problem however, and that is Chicken Little’s very small stature. On the one hand/wing, he has an almost-microscopic strike zone. On the other hand, he can barely lift the bat. Meanwhile, Foxy Loxy is the closest thing to Babe Ruth that Oakley Oaks has ever seen.
Still, Chicken Little seems to be making some progress when once again he is the only one to see that the sky seems to be falling. Will he risk his refurbished reputation to warn everyone?
The computer animation is meticulously crafted, from the broadest gag to the tiniest detail. Each of Chicken Little’s over 70,000 feathers is individually and perfectly rendered and each joke/visual pun/pratfall/wisecrack/political satire is perfectly paced to balance the tension and sentiment. Yet the film still has a nicely casual feel, due in part to a mix-tape selection of pop standards but mostly to not taking itself too seriously. A meta-moment at the end proves a perfect capper.
The voice talents are exceptionally well chosen, especially Marshall and Cusack, along with hilarious bits from Don Knotts (as ever-equivocal Mayor Turkey Lurkey), Patrick Warburton, Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara, and Adam West. The visuals are technically superb, but we take that for granted now. What captures us is the worth-a-second-viewing visual wit, from a chameleon who changes color with the traffic light to a china shop proprietor who happens to be…a bull, and the subtle chicken theme in everything from a hood ornament to the wallpaper pattern and a three-eyed Mickey Mouse (trust me, it makes sense).
The artists have a lot of fun with the physical properties of their animal characters, especially the bulky rooster (watch him try to get up from the bed). And the story is a sweet reminder of unconditional love and the importance of “talking about something until it’s resolved.” Unlike its hero, this film does not swing for the fences, and that works in its favor. The technical focus on detail is balanced with a nice, casual looseness on the story side. The folks at Disney all know that even something as small as an acorn can still make a difference.
Parents should know that (spoiler alert) some children may be frightened by the tentacled aliens and apparent evaporation of some characters, though it all turns out fine. There is brief crude humor (character in underpants) and a sweet kiss. Some children may be upset by Chicken Little’s having lost his mother. Spoiler alert again: Some audience members will also be concerned about Foxy Loxy’s transformation from a rude but confident and athletic girl into a simpering, ruffle-wearing “girly” girl.
Families who see this movie should talk about Abby’s advice to Chicken Little. What is “closure?” How can we make sure that families always talk about the things that are important to them? Why do family members sometimes find it hard to see how much they are loved? Or that they don’t need to prove themselves? They should also talk about Chicken Little’s courage and resilience in looking at each day as a new beginning.
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy The Emperor’s New Groove, Lilo and Stitch, and A Bug’s Life.