The breakup between the Mouse House and the creators of Toy Story and The Incredibles may not be complete -- indeed, new management at Disney has recently seemed to offer hope of an extended partnership. Still, Chicken Little -- Disney's first attempt at in-house CGI animation in the Pixar mold -- sometimes feels less like a movie than part of a strategy to get back together.
The film begins with a lively pop as a re-imagining of the storybook tale about the tiny fowl (voiced by Zach Braff) who caused a panic by screaming that the sky was falling. Here he's just a school kid in the animal-populated town of Oakey Oaks, and -- a year after his infamous false alarm -- he's still trying to live down the infamy. His fellow outcasts Abby "Ugly Duckling" Mallard (Joan Cusack) and the massive piglet Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn) have his back, but everyone else thinks he's a loser -- even, in his own way, his dad (Garry Marshall).
It's a fun set-up, largely because director Mark Dindal (The Emperor's New Groove) and his screenwriting team refuse to turn Chicken Little into a character who thinks of himself as a loser. A great early sequence finds the plucky protagonist making his way to school through a series of obstacles, his ingenuity extricating him from dilemma after dilemma. Braff's vocal performance lends the character soul; he's a boy trying to redeem himself and hold onto his self-confidence while he feels it slowly being chipped away.
The character work and subversive humor are rolling along for nearly half the film -- until suddenly everyone is overwhelmed by the desire to create an action blockbuster. The sky really is falling, it turns out, with scenes seemingly ripped off directly from The Incredibles. Everything in Chicken Little gets faster, louder and scarier -- feeling more and more like something trying to out-Pixar Pixar.
Instead, it just begins to feel more calculated. The cutesy, furry alien baby that ultimately befriends Chicken Little looks like a character created solely to sell toys. And the be-yourself, accept-me-for-who-I-am lessons have a wearying familiarity.
Perhaps Chicken Little seems more disappointing because it showed such potential to set itself apart from the gear-grinding machinations of other Pixar wannabes. There's a unique slant to the art design -- the backgrounds are filled with cartoonishly off-kilter angles rather than the clean real-world lines of most computer-animated fare.
But Chicken Little couldn't just be distinctive; it had to be impressive. It had to include furious, frantic action, even if it meant wrenching the story from its foundation as a compelling picture of youthful anxiety. Pixar's genius has always been its ability to integrate its strong stories with its humor and adventure; Chicken Little merely slaps them together side-by-side, hoping we won't notice.