Now that it’s almost ten years later, the mid-2000s seem more and more like one of the darkest moments for mainstream American animated features, and for Disney in particular. I would argue that the medium had one of its worst moments the following year (2006 didn’t see a single great animated feature released), but for Disney, which thought it couldn’t sink lower than the place it was at twenty years ago, 2005 would show the world how aimless and desperate the studio really was to remain relevant in an animation landscape that had changed around it. It was Walt Disney Feature Animation’s worst moment because it seemed like it was waving a white flag and surrendering to the mediocrity that was going on around it. Say what you will about movies like Treasure Planet, but at least Disney was trying to sway the tide in its favor by being bold. In 2005, it decided that it couldn’t fight anymore; that it was better off doing whatever it was that seemed to be working for its rivals. Thank God that idea didn’t work.
Chicken Little has a pretty dismal reputation. It’s become pretty much universally accepted among Disney fans that it is the worst movie in the Canon. But is it so clearly the worst? If I’m being completely honest, it isn’t much more boring or lacking in interesting plot and characters than, say, Dinosaur. From a “this movie doesn’t work” perspective, I don’t find one to be necessarily more inept than the other. We are, of course, talking about two bad movies, but you get the idea. What I want to say is that Chicken Little, taken in a vacuum, shouldn’t be so easy and obvious to point out as the worst. But that task becomes so easy once you start thinking about the historical background behind it. It is a very bad movie alright, but one that gets dragged down not because it fails, but because of the nature of its failures.
That whole rumbly paragraph is to say that Chicken Little sucks because Disney was trying to do Shrek. In 2001, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Dreamworks Animation had their first gigantic hit thanks to he green ogre. Suddenly, every studio was looking to start a computer animation division that would bring some of those Shrek dollars. Much of the movies produced by these studios were mediocre and have been mostly forgotten. The truth is that nobody cared if some random dudes were doing a crappy movie about a talking moose over at Sony, but everyone (rightly) gasped in horror when Disney, traditionally the giant of animation, tried to do the same. This was even more of a big deal because Disney had just announced it would no longer produce traditionally animated movies, and had closed its animation studios in Florida. Back then, it seemed like we had crossed the point of no return. This really was a surrender. Disney was admitting defeat.
Chicken Little is essentially a retelling of the old tale about the chicken who thought the sky was falling, only this time he is kind of right. What he perceives as the sky falling are actually part of an alien invasion’s technical difficulties. Although it sounds very uninteresting, there is nothing inherently wrong with this premise. I mean, people manage to make movies out of stupid premises all the time. The problem with Chicken Little, as with all bad movies, is in the execution. It is easy how Disney was trying to catch the zeitgeist with Chicken Little. The more charitable way of looking at the movie is to say they were trying to make a movie about talking animals and do with it what Shrek did to fairy tales, and they just failed. I mean, the man in charge of this film was, after all, Mark Dindal, who had brought such fantastic comedic sensibilities to The Emperor’s New Groove. There are a number of tongue-in-cheek jokes about the animals and the world they live in, starting with them having names such as BLABLABLABLAA or BLABLAALA. There are a couple chuckle-worthy moments in the film’s early going resulting of this kind of humor, but the movie’s smarts end there.
The less charitable way, and the one that I can’t help but side with, is that Disney executives (led by Michael Eisner) sat in an office, looked at how Shrek and Ice Age had outperformed their product, and decided to make a checklist of the things that had, apparently, made those movies successful. CGI? Check. Talking Animals? Check. Pop Songs and Pop Culture references? Double check. Because, if there is something that completely sinks Chicken Little is how it seems to be so confident that what people want out of their animated movies is pop songs and pop culture references. In the first half of the movie there are at least three montages set to bland pop songs. Two of these montages even come in a row! Literally, one ends and the other begins. If that wasn’t enough, the movie’s default setting for making us laugh is making the characters sing well known pop songs. Some of the overused gems in the Chicken Little soundtrack include “Everybody Dance Now”, “We Are the Champions” and “Stayin’ Alive”.
There is no going around it, this movie sucks. It feels like a cold, corporate product more than anything Disney ever did. It is hard to think anyone was ever passionate about this project. From the lazy writing to the horrible design of the characters, the low quality of the animation, there is absolutely nothing there to save this movie. I mean, imagine wanting to watch a funny family movie, and getting this:
Next Week: Meet the Robinsons. I have never seen that one, so we’ll see how that goes.