Chicken Little is a familiar story: An old moral tale about the true meaning of courage and community. Walt had originally produced the story as an animated short in the 1940s, but this modern rendition is a computer-animated romp that touches on the original lessons while losing much of the magic.
The original story that became Chicken Little was actually born in Buddhist scripture. In a story called Duddubha Jataka: The Sound the Hare Heard, a hare is startled by the sound of fruit falling nearby and immediately comes to the conclusion that the world is coming to an end. Terrified, he gathers up all the animals of the forest and together they stampede for safety. A lion quickly stops them, though, and investigates the cause of the noise. Upon realizing it was just a falling fruit, and not the end of the world, the lion restores calm and order. The story is about the power and importance of deductive reasoning and evidence-based actions. It is a classic morality tale.
That story was written approximately 2,500 years ago and it has since morphed into dozens of forms. In the 20th century, it is more commonly called Henny Penny, The Sky is Falling or Chicken Little. It is a story for children. The Disney version of the story is not so far off the original tale. While it takes the traditional liberties the studio has always taken with its source material, it is still about a careless panic squelched by deductive reasoning and calm examination — sort of. This story also has aliens.
Chicken Little was directed by Mark Dindal, the same fellow who directed The Emperor’s New Groove so successfully for the studio. He’d been with the studio a long time, even doing effects work on films as far back as The Black Cauldron and Mickey’s Christmas Carol. He was a studio insider through-and-through. That could have been their first mistake.
Disney was in the middle of an identity crisis at this point in their history. Pixar and Dreamworks were pushing out more films, and better films, and Disney was being threatened on their own ground. The magic of the early 1990s was completely gone, stories were being handled at the executive level and uncertainty was rampant in the ranks. So a company man of 20 years would likely have felt those pressures more than others, having lived through the glory days himself.
It’s not Dindal’s fault, though. Chicken Little failed on a number of fronts. The animation style, first of all, is simultaneously minimalist and childlike. It almost looks like a Playmobile set. But then that set is invaded by smooth, glowing and fuzzy 3D aliens falling from the sky in hexagonal ships.
The story is similar: Simple on the surface, but needlessly complicated. The setup to the film is perfect. Chicken Little is presented as resourceful, intelligent, entirely likeable, but an underdog often mocked for his size. From the beginning, the audience is on his side. And yet the 90-minute film is bogged down with a sort-of love story between him and Ugly Duckling, a need to have his father accept his shortcomings and screwups, overcoming a bully fox, finding a lost alien child, proving his credibility to the town and saving his friend from a spacecraft. It’s a lot to digest.
The original 1943 animated short comes in at a mere 8 minutes long and will be familiar to most people who grew up in the age of Saturday morning cartoons.
The 2005 version, however, was an enormously expensive film to produce, eventually costing up to $150-million. Critics panned it. At 36 per cent, it holds the “honour” of being Disney’s lowest Rotten Tomatoes rating. The New York Times crushed it, saying: “It also has the distinction of being a terrible movie — a hectic, uninspired pastiche of catchphrases and clichés, with very little wit, inspiration or originality to bring its frantically moving images to genuine life.” Ouch.
But audiences liked the slapstick comedy and fast-paced story telling. Opening weekend the film pulled in $40-million for top honours at the box office, besting Jarhead, which also opened that weekend, by more than $12-million. It eventually pulled in more than $314-million worldwide, but never became a classic film with the kind of integration into Disney Parks and Cruise Lines that other characters enjoyed.
Chicken Little was a good luck charm. A movie that injected some much needed money into the studio. But behind the scenes, more was at work and real artists with real vision were working on bringing creative energy back to the big screen.