Aliens and chickens aren't two words I ever thought I'd see in the sentence, let alone serve as the basis for a big Hollywood animated movie. So when I first heard about 'Chicken Little,' I had my doubts. Would Disney -- in their first all-CGI effort outside of the Pixar fold -- be able to pull off such a crazy mash-up of an idea, or would this be another high-concept disaster on the order of such animated boondoggles as 'Treasure Planet' or 'Titan A.E.?'
As it turned out, the result landed somewhere in-between. While 'Chicken Little' failed to launch Disney's homegrown CGI division to Pixar-level heights, it also didn't launch the gigantic, computer-generated egg that some had predicated. In the end, it was just another one of those cutesy animated family flicks that kind of comes and goes, earning quite respectable grosses but quickly fading from memory.
The story itself is rather bizarre, even for an animated movie starring talking animals. As the film begins, Chicken Little (Zach Braff) is the Fowl Who Cried Wolf of Oakey Oaks, a peaceful farmyard where animals live an idyllic life. A year ago, he caused an uproar by pulling the alarm after he mistook a earthbound acorn for the sky falling. Poor Chicken Little has since worked tirelessly to help restore his reputation, to little avail. Then, the inconceivable happens -- a real piece of sky lands on his head, as an alien invasion is apparently afoot. But who will believe him? Certainly not his disapproving father Buck (Garry Marshall). So, calling upon his three most loyal friends, Abby Mallard (Joan Cusack), Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn) and Fish Out of Water (Dan Molina), Chicken Little attempts to prevent this war of the worlds, and finally make his dad proud.
It took me a while to get into 'Chicken Little.' For much of the film, I just couldn't quite place where the film was going, or what tone it was trying to achieve. Granted, most animated flicks are rather kooky and require some serious suspension of disbelief, but 'Chicken Little' didn't seem to have an identifiable "hook." Was this a tale designed to warn young kids against the dangers of telling big fibs? Some coded, conservative ode to xenophobia? Or just an excuse to animate chickens and aliens and make a really cool toy line?
Eventually, multiple themes emerge, and some are very Disney-esque. Chicken Little's dynamic with his father Buck recalls the the touching father-son bonding of 'Bambi,' while his sense of displacement in his own community is more than little reminiscent of the similar 'Lilo & Stitch.' Veering away from Disney, things take an 'E.T.'-like turn when the alien spaceship accidentally leaves its own children behind, who Chicken Little must befriend before their angry parents return for retribution.
But while 'Chicken Little' is a bit of a mish-mash that never fully gels, it does offer a few pleasures thanks to its animation, performances and some other cute little touches. The film has a nice visual look, particularly the retro spaceship designs. The voice cast is also first-rate, even for a major studio effort -- in addition to Braff, Cusack and Zahn, other notable performances include Patrick Stewart, Patrick Warburton, the late Don Knotts and the always-fabulous Catherine O'Hara. And it's hard not to root for poor Chicken Little in his quest to earn the love of his dad. Though I still don't know how anyone sold the powers-that-were at Disney on this odd concept for an animated movie, the journey of its hero is ultimately a universal one.
Alas, the one area where 'Chicken Little' totally failed for me was the music. The score and songs by John Debney are rather forgettable. There is even a theme song, "One Little Step," by the Barenaked Ladies, who, for my money, may be the most cloying pop band currently on the planet. 'Chicken Little' may not one of Disney's animated classics, but he's a likeable enough bird that he deserved better than warmed-over Phil Collins.
With its happy-happy farmyard setting and pastel-like color scheme, 'Chicken Little' has a somwhat more benign visual style than most recent CGI animated hits, such as Sony's 'Monster House' or Warner's 'The Polar Express.' But while this presentation may never "pop" like the best animated transfers I've seen on Blu-ray, it does easily hold its own in terms of depth and excellent detail.
A direct digital-to-digital conversion, 'Chicken Little' certainly looks pristine. Contrast has a nice and bright look, without blooming whites. Sharpness and texture are first-rate -- from Chicken Little's individual feathers to the delicate shadings on the alien spaceships, fine details are always clearly visible. However, I found shadow delineation to sometimes look a bit too bright in the low-end, which bumps up detail but adds some flatness.
Colors are also not absolutely dazzling. Though perfectly saturated with no noise, the film's wimpy palette simply doesn't lend itself to the kind of vivid primaries that really shine on the best transfers of CGI films. I actually preferred some of the aliens-in-the-dark-sky stuff over other sequences, because colors tended to appear more robust and stylized. Unfortunately, these same sequences are also infused with an artificial haziness which appears to be intentional but doesn't help clarity. All in all, though, 'Chicken Little' certainly shines far more often than not.
Disney provides a very impressive uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track (48kHz/16-bit/4.6mbps) that is sure to please. The film's sound design is very lively and engaging, and it never fails to utilize all five speakers to strong effect.
Surrounds are rarely quiet. From the early farmyard scenes to the later alien encounters, discrete effects are pronounced, with excellent imaging and great clarity, even to minor ambiance. Though I had trouble understanding some of the voices (simply because in my old age I can't comprehend what most animated characters are saying these days), dialogue is very well balanced. Only John Debney's score sometimes blares too loudly in the mix, which only ups the annoyance factor on songs that I disliked in the first place. Dynamic range is terrific though, with the completely studio-constructed audio sounding totally natural and realistic. If it wasn't for the too-loud score, this would be a five-star home run.
'Chicken Little' was released on standard-def DVD back in early 2006, and came with a fairly good nest egg of extras that mixed kid-friendly fun and games with more in-depth material for adults. Perhaps in a nod to the early adopter-dominated crowd that's currently supporting Blu-ray, Disney has carried over all the features, plus some key Blu-ray exclusives (see below) -- so there should be plenty of bullet points on the back of the box to appease the film's fans.
"Hatching 'Chicken Little': The Making Of The Movie" is billed as a five-part documentary, but at only 18 minutes total, it's too short to really offer much insight. Director Mark Dindal and producer Randy Fullmer are the main participants, taking us on a guided tour of the film from pre-production through completion. Scattered throughout are EPK interview bits with some of the voice cast and key animators. The best parts are some of the early concept and CGI renderings, though again this featurette is just too short to cover much ground.
Next are the same five Deleted Scenes that appeared on the standard-def release: two alternate openings, plus the "Chicken Little Storybook" (narrated by the late Don Knotts), "Cooking With Klaus" and "Original Opening With Chicken Little As A Girl." Each includes an optional intro, again by Dindal and Fullmer. The scenes are presented in various stages of completion, including concept art, rough renderings and completed CGI. All include optional filmmaker introductions
Next we have a couple of interactive games, "Easter Egg: Hunt of the Litter" and "Easter Egg: Foxy Lady." Unfortunately, these are pretty basic trivia-style games, and given the greatly improved interative capabilities of the Blu-ray format, seem rather dated. Kids may still enjoy them, though.
Things finish off with promo fluff, including two music videos for The Cheetah Girl's "Shake Your Tale Feather" and the Barenaked Ladies' "One Little Slip." There are also Sing-Along and Karaoke versions of 'One Little Slip," if you really want to subject your neighbors to some musical torture.
'Chicken Little' is typical of today's studio CGI-animated features -- it's cute, it features talking animals, and the plot makes little real sense. Still, I enjoyed it for what it is, and that I'm sure families will appreciate it's high replay factor, especially for really young viewers. This Blu-ray release is a very fine effort from Disney, with high-class video and audio and even a couple of notable exclusives.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.