There was a time, not so long ago, when Hollywood tried to make family films that would be perennially appealing, with as much to say to future audiences as to today’s. But that was before references to contemporary pop culture became Hollywood’s obligatory short-hand system for generating laughs. The inclination to riff on classic movie moments and recognizable tunes was kept within reasonable bounds in pictures like “Shrek,” but in “Chicken Little” it’s almost a constant motif. The movie is an almost wall-to-wall compendium of allusions to Steven Spielberg movies, from “E.T.” to “War of the Worlds,” with “Raiders of the Lost Ark” coming in for the biggest single bit. But that only scratches the surface. One can also see the influence of Joe Dante’s underrated “Explorers,” too, and M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs.” The finale owes a lot to “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.” Even the final credits, with various characters reappearing to do a dance, revisits the “Madagascar” template. But those are just the movie references. The music ones are equally prevalent, with disco standards from “Saturday Night Fever” and Barbra Streisand titles joining R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” and Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” among many others, in the mix. And one of the main characters–a fish, encased in a suit with a water-filled bowl atop it, that talks in intelligible gurgles seems like an aquatic version of Kenny from “South Park.”
This over-dependence on easy crutches to extract audience reaction is particularly unfortunate because the picture sporadically shows some real cleverness in throwaway sight gags (like one involving some lemmings) and stray bits of dialogue (like the baseball-game commentary by an overly honest dog). Most of “Chicken Little,” however, is so rife with this sort of stuff that the movie will seem dated even to younger audiences by the time it first flashes on the screen. Not that the script devised by Steve Bencich, Ron J. Friedman and Ron Anderson is all that helpful. It’s a predictably sassy updating of the old tale of a fowl that gets a clunk on the head and immediately presumes that the sky is falling. Here shrimpy CL (voiced blandly by Zach Braff) is a scrawny, bespectacled urchin with a distinctly oversized head whose widowed father Buck Cluck (Garry Marshall, with a pronounced Bronx accent that seems out of place), a former jock, is chagrined when his son is bonked by an acorn and turns the whole town into a frenzy by claiming an emergency because the heavens are about to crash. Our little hero gains back respectability by winning a little league baseball game with an unlikely hit (besting his rival Foxy Loxy, voiced by Amy Sedaris, in the process). But soon he’s put in a quandary when a real piece of sky comes flying down, leading to a complicated fracas in which he and his pals–Abby Mallard (an anonymous-sounding Joan Cusack), the grotesquely obese (and predictably terrified) pig called Runt of the Litter (an excited Steve Zahn) and Fish Out of Water (Dan Molina), who merely gurgles because of the water-filled helmet he must wear–have to save their town from an alien invasion which–to turn things nice at the end–is actually just an effort by some outer-space visitors to retrieve their furry little son, who was left behind in their earlier visit. And even their reason for visiting os benign.
None of this is particularly inventive, and some of the bits–like Abby’s repeated insistence that Chicken Little and Buck need to sit down and talk over their problems to achieve “closure” in the wake of their common loss, or Foxy Loxy’s eventual transformation into what looks like Little Bo Peep–come across as oddly tone-deaf (Abby’s constant refrain is likely to bewilder kids while sounding like psychbabble to their elders). Even the more promising stuff, like Runt’s nervousness, is mishandled (he can assuage his frenzy, for some reason, only by singing songs from “Saturday Night Fever” or listening to Barbra Streisand records!). And when the big finale returns to the cinematic motif–turning the story we’ve just seen into a “Star Wars”-style “adaptation” featuring the voice of Adam West as a much changed Chicken Little–one can only sigh at the thought that, yes, movie clunkers come in all shapes and sizes.
The voice work by the leads is mostly disappointing as well, with only Zahn providing much personality. Some of the secondary parts are better taken by veterans like Don Knotts (as the turkey mayor–a potential pun this reviewer will pass by it silence), Patrick Stewart as a teacher who’s literally a sheep (he has one good linguistically-based gag), Wallace Shawn as the school principal, Harry Shearer as that dog announcer, and Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara–a team well-known from Christopher Guest’s great improvised mockumentaries–as the alien parents. But even their stellar contributions are linked to animation that, by contemporary standards, is pretty unimpressive. “Chicken Little” looks more like “Valiant” than “Shrek” or “Toy Story.”
Maybe toddlers will find the colorful images engaging, but most older audiences will find the picture overlong even at a mere 82 minutes. The title’s oddly appropriate, though, since in an era of animation giants, this movie is small potatoes. Or in keeping with the theme, chicken feed.