Movie Musings: Remembering ‘Chicken Little,’ 10 Years Later
In 1985, The Walt Disney Studios were poised to usher in a new era of filmmaking. The studio was pushing the next generation of Disney animators into more grown-up territory,, with the PG-rated feature film, The Black Cauldron, based on the second of five books in the Chronicles of Prydain series, by Lloyd Alexander.
However, instead of attracting an older crowd that was into the likes of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, the film crashed and burned upon release. To add insult to injury, the studios’ first PG-rated animated feature, was beaten at the 1985 box-office, by a G-rated animated feature: The Care Bears Movie!
Fortunately, the studio’s fortunes soon turned around after Cauldron. The Great Mouse Detective was released in 1986 to favorable reviews, and has been considered by some, to be the start of the studio’s animation Renaissance, that went on for almost 15 years.
Of course, the good times couldn’t last for long.
As animated features became more lucrative and successful than even during Walt Disney’s time, much of the studio’s upper management began to throw in their own ideas. Pretty soon, it wasn’t so much the people working in Feature Animation that were calling the shots, but men-in-suits…men-in-suits who had never animated a character, or tried to storyboard an emotional scene. All they had on their side, were fancy degrees, and facts and figures on how to run a business.
Pricey animated films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet fizzled at the box-office, and attention began to turn to other studios that were raking in the cash.
Box-office grosses from the likes of Dreamworks’ Shrek and Blue Sky Studios’ Ice Age films, were in the eyes of “the suits” in Burbank, California…and that meant some changes were in store for the studio.
And so, it was soon declared by the higher-ups, that hand-drawn (aka “2-D”) animation…was dead! According to them, the public was tired of 2-D, and 3-D was the future…and the company had to ‘modernize.’
And so, studios the company owned in Paris, France, and Orlando, Florida, were shut down. After completion on films like Brother Bear and Home on the Range, a large number of hand-drawn animators were shown the door…with a select few kept on board, that could then turn their skills to the computer-generated frontier.
To those of us in-the-know, the hand-drawn legacy went out with a whimper, when the animated feature Home on the Range came out in the Spring of 2004…with a measly $13 million opening weekend, and quickly sank from sight.
Of course, the executives at The Mouse House were already on board their own ship, charting a course to big-time profits. We’ll just slap the Disney name on a 3D animated feature, and the cash will flow in, must have been the first thing on their minds.
But where to begin? Animating humans in the computer would not be easy, so why not go with animals? And, how about a familiar story that everyone knows…or at least, they think they know.
And so, the fable of Chicken Little was modernized, and would become the studios’ first step into playing the 21st century game that Dreamworks, and Blue Sky Studios, and PIXAR were already involved in.
As the story begins, Chicken Little throws his hometown of Pokey Oaks into a panic, when he claims a piece of the sky “shaped like a stop-sign,” hit him on the head. His father, Buck Cluck, assumes it to be an acorn, and Chicken Little is ridiculed and ostracized by the town following the events.
His best friends Runt of the Litter, Abbey “Ugly Duckling” Mallard, and Fish Out of Water, still believe in him, but Chicken Little finds himself trying to prove himself to the rest of the town, as well as win back the lost respect of his father…until, the sky falls, again!
Once upon a time, Disney was the leader of animated features. 95% of the Hollywood studios, when making an animated film, would never make a move outside-the-box, but just look at what Disney had done, and try to copy them. Prince and Princess stories? we can do that. A sidekick that cracks pop-culture shtick? check. A musical? double-check!
But when it came to Chicken Little, it was clearly obvious that the leader, had now become a (desperate) follower, thanks to management and executive oversight.
Watching the film, one can’t help but get a huge Shrek vibe from the entire thing: a story you think you know…but with a twist!
The biggest problem with the film I feel, is that it’s missing a heart. The entire thing is strung together on pop-culture references, and oftentimes, is a pretty mean-spirited production.
Every other character just seems to serve a small purpose, and it feels that meaningful character development, has been replaced by making everyone loud and obnoxious.
It’s true that we can find sympathy in a downtrodden character (like Dumbo), but the slings and arrows just never seem to let up for Chicken Little. It’s not just a select few, but the entire town that pretty much blames him after a year’s time, even to the point that a movie was made over the incident. In a way, Pokey Oaks almost feels like an entire town of bullies.
Chicken Little’s misfit friends serve to try and give him a cushion against what’s happening, but it never really feels like they ever move beyond being one-note. Runt freaks out so many times, I think you could make a drinking game out of it. Abbey keeps trying to be the logical friend most of the time, but it feels that once her purpose is done 3/4 of the way through the film, she just becomes as two-dimensional as Trinity in the Matrix sequels. There’s also Fish Out of Water, who just seems to be the weird kid that tags along, but oftentimes, seems to be off in his own little world.
Also hard to find much sympathy towards, is Buck Cluck, Chicken Little’s father. Disney goes back to the well with the widowed-parent cliche, but even so, Buck becomes a father-figure that makes you more upset that he is willing throw his son under the bus regarding the town’s ire. It also doesn’t help his character that in the aftermath of the sky-falling incident, he also seems to shun his own son, and be unwilling to listen to half of what he says most of the time.
The film tries to be snappy and quick, which is one of director Mark Dindal’s trademarks. The director of Cats Don’t Dance and The Emperor’s New Groove, Dindal was able to make entertaining and even likable characters out of such irascible characters like Darla Dimples, and Emperor Kuzco. However, in Chicken Little, there’s little charm to be found.
The film also utilizes a number of popular songs, to the point where during an alien invasion (yes, and you thought Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was the first film to be ruined by aliens), R.E.M.’s song End of the World as We Know It plays…as if some executive thought, “hey, this song played in Independence Day, that’s pop-cultural! This will get lots of laughs!”
Even the amount of pop-culture references made me cease laughing pretty quickly. Whether it be Runt of the Litter singing to showtunes constantly, or the animals watching Raiders of the Lost Ark in their local theater (yes, animated characters watching a live-action Harrison Ford film. That image above is not Photoshopped). I like to think pop-culture overload began around 1992, when everyone became entranced with Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin. After that, it seemed every film had them built into the story in some way. When used sparingly it can work fine, but when it never lets up, it grates on you (If any of you saw the dub of the Magic Roundabout animated feature into the Americanized Doogal, you witnessed something that out-pop-cultured even Chicken Little!).
The advertising campaign also toyed with its audience, tending to rely on mis-direction. The advertising was erratic, loud, and oftentimes, just seemed to rely on ‘cool-and-hip’ animation. They even touted such background characters as Morcupine Porcupine, who in the film, only garnered less than a minute of screentime.
The posters made for the advertising campaign, also showed little creativity, with bad puns galore. Most notable, is this image of Chicken Little sitting in an egg-chair, and wearing shades much like Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in the Men in Black II poster. At least in the MIB films, we saw the egg-chairs referenced in the poster, but in this case, noone in the film sits in a cracked egg, or wears a suit like this.
In the end, Chicken Little’s final US box-office grosses tallied up to $135 million, just a little shy of its $150 million production budget.
Even so, the studio was still planning to go forward with other, hip-and-edgy films. The next feature film A Day in The Life of Wilbur Robinson, was re-branded with the more hip title of Meet the Robinsons, and Chris Sanders (creator of Lilo & Stitch), was working on a production dubbed American Dog. There was even word that the company’s CEO Michael Eisner, wanted to take the earlier hand-drawn features made by the studio, and redo them, in CGI!
That all changed, once Disney kicked Eisner out, and Bob Iger became the company’s new CEO. Iger’s first order of business was to end the stalemate between Disney and PIXAR, and orchestrated a $7.4 billion acquisition deal, keeping the Emeryville studio on board.
PIXAR’s top brass John Lasseter, and Ed Catmull, soon came to take prominent positions within Feature Animation (a place Lasseter had worked for and been released from in the early 80’s), and began to clean house.
A number of projects were re-worked or scrapped (Robinsons was overhauled, and American Dog became Bolt, at which point Sanders left Disney for Dreamworks). The direct-to-video productions were scrapped, which also meant the end of sequels like Dumbo 2, and even a Chicken Little 2.
To this day, I still feel Chicken Little was the equivalent to The Black Cauldron: something that upper-management said would be good for the company, but had too many hands in the pot, to even make it boil to a proper conclusion. It just reeks of desperation, trying to be all things for all audiences, but its attempts to get your attention, just feel lackluster.
I can’t fully fault some of the animation done on the show, though. They tried their darnedest to get some squash-and-stretch into what would normally be rigid computer models…though there are a few times one can tell they may get a little carried away, trying to figure out how everything works. in one scene, Abbey Mallard’s face and mannerisms almost seem to move a little too much, to the point I thought I might get motion sickness.
Of course, from this film, began the climb back to prominence. John Lasseter and Ed Catmull had some say in the upcoming Meet the Robinsons, and the story changes I feel, helped steer that film back into the realms of emotional storytelling, that I and many others had longed for.
From there, they continued climbing the ladder, their efforts continuing to improve from film-to-film. And though Lasseter did renege on the ‘2-D is dead’ campaign, the studio only put out two hand-drawn features: The Princess and the Frog, and 2011’s Winnie the Pooh. Sadly, while both had some good storytelling, they were at the mercy of bad titling (according to the analysis on Frog’s lower box-office take), or being put up against bigger films (seriously, what executive said “let’s release Winnie the Pooh on the same weekend as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2?”).
In the last 5 years, the studio has had a number of big successes, with Tangled, Frozen, and Big Hero 6. Next year, they’ll return to a world of anthropomorphic animals, with Zootopia, a buddy-cop movie in a world where animals of all shapes and sizes exist. I’m actually excited to see what they come up with character and concept-wise for the film, and hope it will continue to be a crowd-pleaser for audiences.