Clucking, flapping, but little character

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Clucking, flapping, but little character

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It’s been three years since Disney put its last hand-drawn animated feature, “Brother Bear,” in the can, marking the end of Walt Disney’s theatrical dream, which began 75 years ago and came to shape American cultural history.
A drastic reorganization followed the closure of the Florida and Burbank animation studios, resulting in a very different crew working in a very different medium. Now, Walt Disney Feature Animation, like its competitors, is all-digital, and its first in-house computer-animated film, “Chicken Little,” is on its way to Korean cinemas.
The good news is that the film is not as bad as it might have been. In fact, it’s a charming kids’ movie. But given that most audiences for computer animation were weaned on universally appealing fare like “Toy Story” and “Shrek,” “Chicken Little” will seem unambitious and mediocre.
The film opens with the aftermath of Chicken Little’s (Zach Braff) fairytale mistake. Ringing the school bell for all he’s worth, Little’s false alarm leads to mass panic, the destruction of a movie theater and a water tower and a great deal of embarrassment. Soon Little’s the laughingstock of the town, with merchandise, bumper stickers and a movie deal about his blunder. His father (Garry Marshall) advises him just to “lay low.”
This is the first problem with the film ― it seems to think that kicking up the scale of every little thing will lead to a consummate increase in its emotional impact, when in fact it just depersonalizes and distracts from what’s really important ― Little’s relationship with his dad.
To get back in his father’s good graces, Little joins the baseball team and, through sheer luck and, I suppose, gumption, manages to pull off the winning run in the big game. But when the sky starts falling again, Little realizes that he might not have been so crazy after all.
Disney has a solid library of delightfully sweet, family-oriented animated dramas (see “Lilo and Stitch,” “The Little Mermaid” and many others), and “Chicken Little” might have joined it. But confused and hyperactive pacing keeps the movie from its full potential. Chicken Little and his pals Runt (Steve Zahn) and Abby (Joan Cusack) are too busy spouting snarky dialogue and leaping around in action set pieces for any solid emotional growth to take place.
It wasn’t the spaceships and blaster guns that made “Lilo and Stitch” worth seeing, it was the quiet moments between the two struggling sisters, the beautifully crafted ocean scenes and the cute, childish interactions between Lilo and her alien pet. “Toy Story” also broke up the hectic action with pensive scenes and Randy Newman’s wonderful songs. Even “Shrek” had its pauses for contemplation.
But the characters in “Chicken Little” have no emotional arc; they’re too busy shooting off one-liners, dodging jelly balls, pulling off sports plays and, eventually, saving the world from aliens.
The new Disney seems to be off to a good enough start artistically, but along the way they’ve forgotten the lesson they taught Pixar and DreamWorks and so many other young animators: Put the story first, and the rest will follow.


Chicken Little
Animation, Family / English
81 min.
Opens Thursday


by Ben Applegate
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