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Sunday, November 06, 2005

OT: Chicken Little

After Paul DePodesta took a sledgehammer to last year's Dodgers team, the justification he used was that one playoff win for a generation of fans simply wasn't enough. He was right, and in so doing he effectively set the bar for his own performance in the upcoming year. When those expectations weren't met, and a badly injured team stumbled to a 71-91 record, he found himself on his ear and out of a job. The question for DePodesta had to be that of setting expectations, and he aimed high rather than undergoing a rebuilding year or two. Dodger fans, it was said, wouldn't tolerate a noncompetitive team in Chavez Ravine, but the events of last year -- along with the 3,603,646 attendance, first in the National League -- reveal a rather different story. Would DePodesta still be with the team had he simply decided to field a weaker team rather than make free agent commitments to the likes of J.D. Drew, Derek Lowe, and Odalis Perez?

Obviously, we'll never know the answer to that question, but my point is that DePodesta is as fired as if he had built a team with Edwin Jackson in the rotation, an eventuality that happened anyway. The chasm of expectations between groups have a habit of creeping up unnoticed, which brings to mind the recent Disney release, Chicken Little, a charming, energetic film that, for whatever reason, has a lot of critics throwing rotten tomatoes, as this offering from Todd McCarthy in Variety --

Disney's first inhouse all-CG animated feature, "Chicken Little," lives up to its name by serving up a fraction of what audiences are used to getting in this department from Pixar and DreamWorks -- little originality, little humor and little ingratiating characterization.
-- or this one by Glenn Whipp in the Daily News --
But with its first film in the new format, the shockingly mediocre "Chicken Little," Disney has just again proved what animators have been saying all along - it's not the format, it's the story, stupid.

Given the importance Disney was placing on this film, particularly in light of its on-again, off-again negotiations with Pixar Animation, it is remarkable that the studio has delivered a movie so plainly derivative and uninspired as this one.

-- or the Times' own Carina Chocano --
The movie has nothing in common with the fairy tale other than an eponymous chicken and an incidental acorn. But there do seem to be parallels between the fairy tale and the events leading up to Disney's first foray into computer-generated animation. The disappointing results of recent hand-drawn features such as "Home on the Range" and "Brother Bear" ("Bear's" screenwriters Steve Bencich and Ron J. Friedman also wrote "Chicken Little" with Ron Anderson) combined with the concurrent success of Disney-distributed Pixar films such as "The Incredibles" has led the studio to conclude that the future of animation does not include pencils.
-- all of whom invariably remark upon how this has to be a huge hit or else Disney's animation goose is cooked. Most of these reviews follow the party line that Chicken Little is no match for Pixar's The Incredibles, a fantastic animated feature with superb writing and strong characters that really aimed more at adults than children.

To some degree, they're right. But these criticisms also miss the point of Chicken Little: sometimes, all you really need or want from a film is to be entertained for 81 minutes, and on that, Disney delivers. The real trouble is the high expectations that Pixar has set up among critics. Those expectations have ruined a lot of them, with some sniffing that this film doesn't even reach the foothills of aesthetic quality attained by Finding Nemo. I find this a strange complaint, because I found Nemo oddly lacking in emotional resonance, its plot ever-so-slightly contrived, its scenery a tad too formulaic, and its characters sometimes telegraphing inappropriate emotions.

Tex Avery made his reputation by being the anti-Disney, but Chicken Little succeeds by taking its cues from his frantic pacing, another point the "but-why-aren't-you-more-like-The Incredibles" gang can't seem to get its head around. Sure, there's quick cuts and sight gags a-plenty for the kids in the audience, but there's simply no way they'll get the numerous (and hilarious) disco references that lard the script. (Runt of the Litter, voiced by Steve Zahn, gets most of these and is one of the funniest creations I've seen on screen in ages.) For the first time in years, I came out of a movie theater feeling energized, and this film is why.

The basic story -- Chicken Little gets bonked by an acorn, declares the sky's falling, and is then soundly upbraided by his neighbors -- you are familiar with, with the change that his dad, Buck Cluck, also ceases to believe in him. This sets up a classic father-son tangle; as with romantic comedies, we don't go because we don't know how it will end, but because the characters are interesting. In that, Disney and its new animation team have met with remarkable success, a success reflected in a $40.1M weekend gross. If this is the extent of Disney's "failure", I can only say: bring on more.


Just another crazy Moneyballer. ;)
Thanks, Rob. Glad you enjoyed it. I forwarded your review to the crew for their enjoyment.

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