My whole life I have been pretty devoted to the long, diverse legacy of The Walt Disney Company. Since childhood, Disney was the gateway to all cinema, helping me to form a strong sense of the artform and business from an early age. And it was a good time to grow up as a Disney fan. My formative years fell within the height of the Disney Renaissance, from The Little Mermaid (1989) to The Lion King (1994). I would obsessively pour over all the new information I could get about what Disney was working on next, and discovering more and more of the deeper titles within the decades long Disney library. Even before I had entered high school, I could boast that I had seen nearly every Disney animated film that had been made up to that point; The Black Cauldron (1985) being the notable holdout because of it’s lack of availability at the time. To this day, even though my interest in cinema has expanded far beyond walls of a single studio, I still hold a special place in my heart for most things Disney, so you can still say that I am a fan. At the same time, I would also say that I am not a member of any Disney cult either. Like any other big corporation, the House of Mouse does it’s own share of questionable activities in order to keep their profits going strong, and if it does cross the line, I will call them out on it. Their labor disputes with workers in their vast company over the years have reflected badly on them, even in Walt Disney’s time. More recently, their cozy arrangements with the Chinese Government has raised some eyebrows, especially with claims of forced labor behind things like product supply lines and the production of the recent Mulan remake. Those are serious questions for a different time, but I also point out that there are creative failures from the company as well that have left me questioning the judgment of those working at Disney. And that’s something that I find right at the heart of what may be my least favorite Disney film of all time; 2005’s Chicken Little.
Chicken Little came out in theaters at a very turbulent time for the Walt Disney company. The later part of the Disney Renaissance post-The Lion King did not see the same kind of success that the earlier films had. Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), and Hercules (1997) all underperformed and received mixed reception, while Mulan (1998) and Tarzan (1999) saw only modest success. At the same time, Pixar began to rise in prominence, with the Toy Story movies leading the way to even bigger hits like Monsters Inc. (2001) and Finding Nemo (2003). This diminishing of returns for hand drawn animation coinciding with the rise of computer animation began to seriously challenge the notion within the industry about what kind of future the traditional form had left. Then came two pivotal moments. One was the release of the movie Shrek (2001) from newly formed rival studio Dreamworks, which saw record box office and critical praise, earning the first ever Oscar for Best Animated Feature. A year later, Disney’s Treasure Planet (2002) became the biggest money loser in the company’s history. The writing was on the wall; hand drawn was out and computer animation was in. Now, Disney already had their partnership with Pixar to guide them into this next era, but it was a limited contract, and Pixar was itching to go solo. Disney CEO at the time, Michael Eisner, was not happy with what Pixar was demanding as a part of the renewal offer, so he set out to shift Disney’s fledgling animation department to be a Pixar competitor, focused entirely on CGI animation. However, by the time the first of these new CGI Disney films were about to enter production, Eisner’s tenure was ended in a shareholder revolt, and soon after Bob Iger was left in charge of the company. Iger not only soothed over tensions with Pixar, he negotiated a full purchase of the studio altogether, making them officially a part of the Disney company. Though the duel with Pixar was ended before it even started, Eisner’s final push to bring computer animation to the legendary animation department still continued on.
Though a number of projects received a green-light at the same time, it was Chicken Little that was fast-tracked to be the first of this new breed of Disney movie. Put in charge of the project were Director Mark Dindal and Producer Randy Fullmer, fresh off their surprise success with the sleeper hit The Emperor’s New Groove (2000). Many of the animation team were also Disney vets from the Renaissance period that had to quickly re-train themselves in order to work in this new field of computer animation. Also notable was the fact that the movie was going to deviate from the traditional Disney formula; it would not be a musical, aside from licensed songs and new pop tunes scattered throughout the score, it would be taking the classic nursery rhyme story and giving it a “modern” twist, and it would be banking on irreverent humor as a base for it’s entertainment. The movie came out the year after the last of Disney’s hand drawn animated films, Home on the Range (2004) and ironically only a few short months after Eisner’s ouster and Iger’s purchase of Pixar, casting something of a shadow over the movie upon it’s release. While there was anticipation over what Disney might deliver with their first CGI feature, there was also worry. Chicken Little did perform modestly well at the box office, banking $150 million domestic for Disney, but critically it was a different story. The movie was seen as too generic and lacking an identity. And that really is the thing that characterizes the failure of Chicken Little the most as an entry in the Disney canon; the fact that it doesn’t feel like a true Disney film. More than anything, it feels like Disney was trying to answer the competition of Dreamworks and Pixar with more of the same formula, and it backfired. For the first time in it’s storied history, it looked like Disney were the ones playing catch-up.
The story of Disney’s Chicken Little, for lack of a better word, is weak. Pretty much every underdog cliché you can think of is thrown at you with regards to Little’s character development. He’s ostracized for having been responsible for mayhem due to his assertion that the sky was falling and has to build his reputation back up, which is only compounded by the fact that he is a small statured little chicken. They also throw in a cliched parental issues with his father, Buck Cluck (voiced by the late Garry Marshall), which of course is something that has been done to death in countless other Disney films. Even with these tired tropes at it’s heart, the movie can’t even focus on this the whole way through, as later on, the movie turns into an alien invasion plot which comes straight out of nowhere, and makes the second half feel like a whole other film. There is no heart or drive to the movie. It just hits the points when it needs to and then moves onto the next point. Pretty good case in point is when the town that the characters live in begins to be completely invaded by aliens, Chicken Little (voiced by Zach Braff) and his father are holed up in a theater for safety, and as the tension of the moment begins to rise, Little just stops the scene to finally speak his mind to his emotionally distant father. Had the movie been able to build up a more contentious relationship with Little and his dad, this moment might have landed better, but here, it just stops the movie cold so that script can scratch one more thing off it’s list. That’s emblematic of the movie as a whole, it just forces it’s moments through without letting it flow naturally. It’s yet another sign of the filmmakers looking at other movies, like those from Dreamworks and Pixar, and just cutting and pasting what they saw. For a storied studio like Disney to resort to this, it shows a shocking bit of desperation.
I should also point out that none of the characters are likeable at all. Maybe with the possible exception of Buck Cluck, based on the charm of Garry Marshall’s vocal performance alone, all the characters are either too flashy and “hip” to be believable, too obnoxious, or too generic to leave an impression. Chicken Little is easily the most underwhelming protagonist of any Disney movie, and that’s mainly because he changes little (no pun intended) throughout the film. It was clear that Disney wanted actor Zach Braff’s vocal performance to drive the personality of the character, but he’s left with nothing but his own persona to guide him through that process. Like many of Zach Braff’s other characters throughout the years, Chicken Little is nerdy, neurotic, and put down by society, and by the end of the movie he is still nerdy, neurotic but only less put down by society. It’s not Chicken Little who changes, but all those around him that dealt him a bad hand. It’s just not the hero’s journey that you expect from a Disney protagonist, who in some way or fashion have to struggle with some of their own shortcomings in order to become the hero. It doesn’t help that the sidekick characters that follow him along are also devoid of interesting personalities. There’s the ugly duckling, Abby Mallard, who like Braff’s Chicken Little is more defined by who voices her (Joan Cusack) than anything else as a character. There’s voiceless Fish Out of Water, who is just there to deliver visual gags. And then there’s Runt of the Litter (voiced by Steve Zahn) who may be the most insufferable comedic character ever put into any animated movie. He’s just there to be the butt of fat jokes and to break into pop music tunes, because Disney’s trying way too hard to be culture savvy. Coming off of the glory days of the Disney Renaissance, which gave us classic original characters like Sebastian the Crab, Mrs. Potts, the Genie, Pumbaa, and many more, this bland cast of characters really feel out of place, because there clearly was no care in making them stand out in the way that the other had.
I should also note that the movie is visually uninspired as well. Now, to be fair, none of the computer animated movies of that era particularly look great over fifteen years later. Computer animation was fairly new and still experimenting with a lot of techniques with each successive film. But, most people don’t pay attention to the dated look of early CGI when the story and the characters are engaging enough to carry the rest of the movie. That is why Toy Story has endured a quarter of a century after it’s original release. With a story and characters that are less than engaging, people are bound to take notice of the shortcomings of early computer animation even more, and it is painfully obvious how lackluster Chicken Little looks. The movie just has this obvious low texture look to it, like all the characters and the environments are made from plastic. The village that the movie takes place, called Oakey Oaks (*eyeroll*) also has this strange visual style to it, where it’s supposed to look cartoony, but the blockiness of early CGI doesn’t completely smooth out the edges, so it becomes this weird mish-mash of painfully simplistic environmental design. The only interesting visual idea in the whole movie is the way that the sky is made up of hexagonal plates that sit on the bottom of the space ships that are stealthily hovering over the town, and when the ships pull apart, it maintains that pattern. The false sky element leads to some of the only visual gags that work as well, but sadly it doesn’t get nearly enough time on screen. I almost think that a large part of what drove the visual look of this movie was probably coming from Disney’s consumer product line, who were possibly pushing the filmmakers to create character and structural designs that would appeal better as potential toys to sell in conjunction with the movie’s release. It wouldn’t have been the first movie at Disney to have given consideration to the marketability, but with so little else that stands out in the film, it just further illustrates how this movie was made as more of a product and less as a work of art.
It’s interesting that Disney would attempt to devote a feature film to the story of Chicken Little at all and do so without giving any importance to the ultimate message behind the story. The story of Chicken Little, which goes back to early European Folklore, is a cautionary tale about hysteria, and the dangers of giving into one’s fears. Disney in fact had tackled the story before in the 1940’s in a short cartoon. The short is noteworthy by the fact that it ends on a decidedly dark ending, with Chicken Little being tricked by the evil Foxy Loxy into convincing the other chickens on the farm to believe his belief that the sky is falling. They all follow Chicken Little into a cave where they think they will all be safe, but to their tragic mistake, Foxy Loxy is there waiting. The last we see is rows of chicken bones laid out like tombstones on the cave floor. Pretty dark right. It was originally supposed to be even darker, because Disney started out making the short as a wartime propaganda piece, explicitly connecting the hysteria spread by Chicken Little as the seeds of dangerous ideologies like Fascism and Communism. Though cut out of the original short, Foxy Loxy was shown getting his ideas from reading passages out of Mein Kamph, Hitler’s notorious manifesto that became the backbone of Nazism. Disney later changed it to a “psychology” text book, though some of the passages are still from the same source. Though 2005’s Chicken Little didn’t need to be that explicit in it’s message, it nevertheless missed a prime opportunity to have a meaningful lesson at it’s core that stems from the original story. Instead, the movie plays it safe. It reminds me of how starkly it contrasts with another film about animals who live in a human like society that is way, way better in it’s execution; Zootopia (2016). Not only was Zootopia far better looking and had more interesting characters, but it was also not afraid to lean more into a sharp social critique that you otherwise wouldn’t have expected. The fundamental success of Zootopia just illustrates even more how squandered the entire Chicken Little experiment was, and what it could have been had it been brave enough to have an identity.
There are worse animated movies out there, but for a studio like Disney that has raised the bar so high for the artform, Chicken Little is definitely the bottom of the rung of the ladder. It looks cheap, it’s derivative of too many other features, and it lacks an identity. And the most sad thing of all, it just reeks of desperation. It’s scary to think that this is what Michael Eisner was ready to herald as the touchstone for a new era in Disney animation. Thankfully, once he was on the way out and the Pixar deal was reached, the weight of what Chicken Little was supposed to carry was somewhat lightened. Thankfully, Disney animation only improved from there, and has remarkably not fallen under the shadow of Pixar but has instead thrived alongside of it. A new regime now was in charge of the Burbank based animation studio, with former Pixar chief John Lasseter taking the reins. The follow-up to Chicken Little was 2007’s Meet the Robinsons. While not an all time classic, Robinsons was nevertheless an improvement as it had more likable characters and an emotional core at it’s heart. Disney even briefly tried to reboot their hand drawn animation division with The Princess and the Frog (2009) though limited success led to a renewed focus on CGI, and that eventually led to mega successes like Tangled (2010), Wreck-It Ralph (2012), Frozen (2013), Zootopia and Moana (2016). That’s the best thing I can say about Chicken Little is that it’s embarrassment didn’t reflect badly on Disney in the long run. It’s a good thing too, because had it become a bigger success, I think it would’ve creatively bankrupted the studio for a long time. Disney has long been an industry leader, being the gold standard by which all other studios strive to reach harder towards in order to match or even surpass them. With the Dreamworks wannabe that was Chicken Little, it would have been the point where Disney ceded the crown to another studio, and let them be the drivers of the artform. Thankfully, Disney chose a different direction, and reclaimed their dominance in the following decade, making some of the greatest animated films ever in the process. Chicken Little only remains as a reminder of the dark path that they could’ve taken, and a sits alone as sad relic of the point where Disney was just ready to give up and choose commerce over art.