By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 4, 2005
About halfway through "Chicken Little" a subversive thought came to mind, and try as I might, I could not quell it. It took the form of a single word.
And that word was . . . "Popeyes."
But that's my chicken problem. I like to eat 'em, I don't like to go to movies about 'em. There haven't been too many great chicken movies. And I think they look better in a sizzling vat of grease turning crusty-crispy than pecking noisily in the dirt for pieces of feed. Ugh. They're kind of dirty and that red floppy stuff around their heads? What exactly is that?
Anyhow, "Chicken Little," the movie, avoids the ugly-dirty-squawky-stinking chicken issue by portraying the creatures as tidy bourgeois small-towners, about as scabby and dirty as, say, your average Iowa Republican. These chickens are so peppy, cheery, clean and industrious, they probably could get into the Rotary and the Kiwanis with no questions asked. In fact, they look like the people who sell meaty fryers to Popeyes.
That adds up to a movie that will be beloved by most chicken lovers, including chickens themselves, Wade Boggs, children, dogs and cats, mice and crickets and so forth. Many big beings, including adults and cows and the odd anthropomorphic SUV will also enjoy it. (Note: The film is showing in 3-D at Loews Georgetown, Regal Countryside Sterling and Lee Highway Cinemas Merrifield.)
Based on the old tale, and the image of ardent, mythological stupidity -- the chicken who thought the sky was falling when an acorn fell on its head -- this computer-animated geewhizzer takes the story one more crank toward the literal. When the thing hits Chicken Little, it turns out, guess what, it is a piece of the sky, the sky is falling. It's like saying: McCarthy was right! Sheesh, revisionist history: It's everywhere!
The movie then wittily finds a way to morph into a fabulous parody of "War of the Worlds," possibly a bit intense in parts for the smallest of beings, and for just a moment another subversive idea came to mind, more potent than the dream of spice-saturated white meat frying up in nodules of brown crispy grit and smoking with heat and heartburn. Could the Walt Disney Co. have actually unleashed on the unsuspecting public a movie, in the form of a G-rated cartoon, in which . . . heh, heh . . . the world as we know it ends and the few of us who survive are turned into slaves!
But no: The film backs away from this interesting proposition and chooses sound family values -- the lessons of love, loyalty and brotherhood, tolerance and peace -- over sheer nihilism. Drat! I hate when that happens.
Set in the lush small town of Oakey Oaks, the world's acorn capital and the only town in the United States populated by poultry and fish, Chicken Little, here represented as an earnest '50s teenager, is one day at play under the big oak tree in the square when whacko, he's blasted in the skull by an actual piece of sky. No dummy -- even for a chicken-- he repairs to the town hall bell tower and begins proclaiming, a la the old story, the imminent fall of the sky! After much movie spectacle -- in the panic the town water tower topples, spilling a caldron of water that rolls through the streets and smashes through a movie screen that is showing "Raiders of the Lost Ark," just at the moment when the rolling rock is about to squash Indy! -- it's revealed that his interpretation was off, and he becomes the town joke.
Thus the movie's first half is a little domestic drama of self-actualization in which Chicken Little -- the voice is Zach Braff ("Garden State" and TV's "Scrubs") -- tries to find a way to regain the town's regard and the respect of his goofy, ever-decent but deeply disappointed dad (Garry Marshall, a little New Yorky for the wholesome surroundings). The method he chooses is baseball.
Ever see chickens play baseball? No? Then you haven't lived. They play baseball better than they play tick-tack-toe and even the littlest chicken manages to get wood on the ball at a key moment in the game and become a hero. But, really, we are just marking time until the Disney animators feel enough minutes have passed so that the actual sky-is-falling motif can be transmogrified into a full-scale alien invasion, with killer-being whirley birds hunting children in the cornfields along with adults and vehicles, to say nothing of civilization its own self being vaporized by an army of creatures from the imagination of Steven Spielberg (the "War of the Worlds" Steven Spielberg, not the "E.T." Steven Spielberg). It's full-out interplanetary species war!
Or at least for a while. The animators are -- you almost no longer have to say this -- fabulous and full of mischief, weaving enough ironic amusements into the story for the longer of tooth. There's a gimmick where the world is ending but the big fat pig can't get a vending machine to accept a wrinkled dollar. As a man whose dollars are always wrinkled, I especially enjoyed this witty little aside, which maybe nine people will even notice. But it means that somebody is paying attention.
Chicken Little (77 minutes, at area theaters) is rated G, though rather intense for small or easily frightened children.