CHICKEN LITTLE begins with a narrator struggling to come up with a way to get things started. This, we are told, is not your usual sort of animated kid’s film, and so none of the usual openings, say leafing through a storybook, will do. And the wonderful part of that is that it doesn’t begin to do justice to what will follow. This is a rip-snorting flight of adventure fantasy that has an unfettered imagination and a wicked sense of humor.
Don’t be fooled by the conventional way things get rolling. It’s the stuff of a gazillion other “family” films, the plucky misfit hero desperate to prove himself to his disappointed father, the popular crowd at school, and the entire town that he’s alienated with an unfortunate incident. The eponymous hero (voiced by Zack Braff) gets his small town all aflutter by sounding the alarm that the sky is falling. Of course, when the assembled animal multitude arrives on the scene, there’s nothing there except the acorns for which the burg is famous. He sticks to his story, though, that it wasn’t a nut, but a blue, stop-sign shaped bit of heaven that bopped him. A year later at the tail end of a media frenzy, there’s been a book written and a movie is on the way, his father (Garry Marshall achieving a sort of animated greatness here) advises him that the best thing to do under the circumstances is just to lay low, very low, until it all blows over, no matter how long it takes, forever if need be. Alas, fame, or rather infamy is a hard thing to live down in a small town under the best of circumstances that is far less than he has to work with, what being menaced by discarded chewing gum, never mind the classmates who never tire of making fun of him. A turn of events that is the work of the little guy’s sheer grit seems to save the day for the little guy, and then the sky falls. Again.
There may have been animated heroes as irresistibly adorable as Chicken Little, but none more so, and darned few that can come close with that improbably large spherical head and oversized glasses balanced atop a spindly body that houses a single-minded determination belying his diminutive stature. He’s landed in a terrific plot surrounded by pals who light up the screen, Runt (Steve Zahn), an economy-sized pig with a bulbous and unruly physique and excitable nature, which is a dangerous proposition for both him and for those around him; Abby (Joan Cusak), the ugly duckling too ready with the pop psychology she’s picked up courtesy of “Cowsmopolotan” and “Modern Mallard”; and Fish, as in out of water, who attends school in a water suit and is given to impromptu and surprisingly complex homages to classic films. And while he, or possibly she, doesn’t have a word of dialogue, there is something in the beatific smile that bespeaks a psychology that is not quite standard, but entirely engaging. It’s Marshall, though, who is the surprise scene-stealer, blustery and befuddled as the garrulous dad balancing the duty of fatherhood with acute embarrassment over his kid’s antics.
The writing isn’t afraid of pratfalls, but works on several other levels as well. There are the well-aimed swipes at Hollywood excesses as well as capturing the angst modern life with moments such as vending machines that refuse perfectly serviceable paper money, spitting it out with infuriating disdain only to get a deeply satisfying comeuppance and a dim-bulb mayor (ideally voiced by Don Knotts) who works from carefully prepared cue cards. As for the computer animation, whether in its regular or 3-D incarnation, it’s astonishing in its detail and in the way it serves the characters and the story. With it, Disney gets back to its groundbreaking animation roots.
The slickest part of CHICKEN LITTLE is how it manages to weave a genuinely touching father-son story into its hellzapopping fabric without selling either short. This is as much fun as anyone can have at the movies.
Click here for the DVD review of CHICKEN LITTLE.