Disney's 2003 decision to disband its traditional cel animation unit provoked a storm of squawking and head-shaking among animation purists, particularly due to Michael Eisner's brash proclamation that 2D was dead and CGI was the wave of the future. Now Disney is putting its money where its former CEO's mouth was with its first computer-animated feature. Given the company's emphasis on the CGI format over Pixar-quality content, it's no surprise that Chicken Little has story problems. The surprise is that the story's quantity is more an issue than its quality.
Garden State's Zach Braff voices the eponymous little chicken, a bespectacled peewee who gets on the wrong side of his pastel-colored small town when he panics the populace after something—supposedly a chunk of sky—bonks him on the head. A year later, he's still a laughingstock, so when the event repeats and aliens descend, Chicken Little and his friends have to deal with the invasion alone and without further humiliating Chicken Little's sheepish single father (Garry Marshall), who desperately wants his son to shut up, fit in, and stop embarrassing them both.
Turning brief fairy tales into sweeping mini-epics has long been Disney's hallmark, but even for a fable, "Chicken Little" is thin stuff; it's a brief cautionary tale against alarmism, essentially "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" without any of the poetic irony. The Emperor's New Groove director Mark Dindal and his screenwriting team—including two writers from Disney's Brother Bear—fatten the story with family drama and a lot of comedy business between Chicken Little and his geeky outcast friends and enemies, voiced by the likes of Joan Cusack, Steve Zahn, and Amy Sedaris. And Dindal executes it all in a garish, slick, taffy-textured style that doesn't touch what Pixar and Dreamworks are doing with CGI these days, but still at least beats Valiant.
But while he keeps the pace frantic, the film frequently spins its wheels while waiting for the next movie reference, cutesy visual gag, or retro-pop hit. There are plenty of all three—the characters' pop-music obsessions are an ongoing excuse for songs and lyric nods, the film's third act is mostly lifted from War Of The Worlds, and Chicken Little himself is a dead ringer for Egghead Jr., the brainy, big-headed chick from Warner Bros.' Foghorn Leghorn cartoons. That seems appropriate, since Chicken Little feels like a classic Warner short, uncomfortably stretched to feature length and spackled over with instantly dated bubblegum humor. Traditional cel animation may be dead, but it'll be remembered fondly. Pop ephemera like Chicken Little is more likely to be smiled at once, then instantly forgotten.