A Study in Disney: ‘Chicken Little’ (2005)

| February 21, 2022

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

Disney slammed for embarrassing and wrong Chicken Little tweet

The original fable of “Chicken Little” isn’t exactly prime territory for a feature-length movie.  There are a dozen different versions but the one to which most of us are familiar concerns Chicken Little who is struck on the head by an acorn and thinks that the sky is falling, i.e. the end of the world.  He wants to warn the king but tries to rally the townsfolk to go with him, but the plan is waylaid by a fox who invites Chicken Little and his friends into his home for dinner.  There he eats them all.  The End.

Again, this is not a story that one could stretch to feature length.  Disney’s version has Chicken Little throwing the population of Oakey Oaks into a panic before everyone realizes that it was all a mistake – his father assumes that he was hit on the head by an acorn.  With that Chicken Little becomes the town laughing-stock (they even make a movie about it).  Turns out, however, that the little guy was telling the truth.  What hit him on the head was a piece of – sigh – alien technology.  Yup, turns out he was telling the truth.

Remolding the story into an alien invasion comedy feels lazy and desperate, as if the writers assume that modern audiences won’t be able to clue into a story that doesn’t have a massive CG-heavy climax with a lot of action and noise.  Disney, in the past, have been master storytellers.  Why does this one feel like writing by executive committee?  The moral of the original story, as most of us culled it, was not to be a “chicken” but to have courage.  What is the message here?  It turns out that Chicken Little was right, pieces of the sky were falling – well, pieces of alien tech made to look like the sky.  What message does that give us?

Maybe it would be different if the movie were funny, but the writers Steve Bencich, Ron Friedman and Ron Anderson throw in jokes without context, and without any framework.  For example, there is a moment when Chicken Little is getting advice from his friends The Ugly Duckling (voiced by Joan Cusack) and Runt-of-the-Litter (voiced by Steve Zahn), but off to the side, their other friend Fish-Out-of-Water is making a skyscraper out of pages from a magazine which he then climbs like King Kong.  Okay.  What’s the joke?  There’s no reference.

Another joke occurs just after Chicken Little’s second “sky is falling” mishap.  A camera crew arrives on the scene but sees nothing.  One of the camera crew mentions that the footage could be sold as “Chickens Gone Wild,” a reference to soft-porn video series “Girls Gone Wild,” a series in which college-age party girls expose themselves on camera.  What does that have to do with Chicken Little?  Will kids in the audience know about “Girls Gone Wild”?  Why is this reference in a movie aimed at kids under 6?

There are at least three dozen disjointed jokes like this.  They are established with a shotgun approach: firing anything and everything at the screen and hoping that something will stick.  The jokes make no sense, and the world that is established makes even less sense.  There’s a moment at the beginning of the movie in which some of the characters are in a movie theater watching the famous boulder-chase scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark – but it’s the real movie!  We can see Harrison Ford there in that famous scene, but what does that mean?  Does it mean that animated anthropomorphic animals co-exist with real-life human beings?  This is never explained, nor are inclusion of real-life songs like “Wannabe” and “Stayin’ Alive” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”  Does that mean that The Spice Girls, The Bee Gees and Diana Ross exist in this world?

If the establishment of the world in this movie is baffling, then its tone is just disturbing.  Why is this movie so mean-spirited?  Chicken Little (voiced by Zach Braff) makes a mistake, albeit a mistake that causes some property damage, but everyone in town is so selfish and hateful and indifferent to him that it is kind of alarming.  Seriously, there isn’t a single character in this film, save for Chicken Little’s three best friends, who are willing to give him an inch.  Most notably his father, Buck Cluck (voiced by Garry Marshall), who was once the town’s favorite athlete but is now a widowed father raising a son that he treats with basic disdain.  Not just disdain, but a massive effort to have nothing to do with his son, even going so far as to suggest that he remain on the down-low . . . forever!

It might not sound like much that Chicken Little has such cynical and hateful characters given that we live now in a culture in which it has become the norm in comedy, even in children’s media.  But the movie presents this cynicism without ever really bothering to establish it.  Every character, save for Chicken Little outsider friends, are hateful and mean to him.  At least, until he makes the winning homerun at the town’s baseball game to win them the pennant.  THEN, and ONLY then do they like him.  Nobody in this town is accepting or willing to give an inch.  They do everything they can to make him feel inferior until he does something they want that gives in to their selfish natures.  The mean-spirited tone might not be such a problem if the world of the movie were better defined.  There is barely an introduction to anyone in Oakey Oakes and there’s no variety to the characters.  They all seem to be on the same page all the time.  Do they even like each other?

It is good news to note that Chicken Little was a minor bump.  In years to come, the animated product from Disney would not only get better but it shows a measure of wisdom.  Some experimentation, self-reference and attempt to try new things would pull them out of the doldrums of Home on the Range and Treasure Planet and certainly a rotten egg like Chicken Little.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.