Chicken Little (review)

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Cluck Amuck

Is it too much of a stretch to say that Chicken Little perfectly captures the zeitgeist of the moment: “Holy crap, the sky really is falling, and we were idiots not to have noticed all along”? Cuz the little guy here is right — there were no WMDs, and there never were. Er, I mean, the sky is indeed dropping down around his little world, even the first time he said as much. He was never, to mix some fairy-tale metaphors, crying wolf, and is it his fault if no one believed him?
This delightful little Disney confection could well redeem the little clucker forever, in that way that Disney versions of classic stories come to be the definitive ones for us raised-on-media generations. (The Little Mermaid? She wants so much more than this provincial life. No, wait, that was Beauty…) Little kids today may never get the message, from this story at least, that you’re a pathetic woos if you overreact to something completely mundane and ordinary — instead, they’ll get the message, maybe, that people are unwilling to believe anything that doesn’t fit into their neat preconceived mental boxes. Which is completely true, of course. Chicken Little turns everyone but Chicken Little into the butt of a fairy-tale joke, holding up as close-minded idiots all the adults and “normal” kids around Chicken Little and the small posse of “loser” pals who stay loyal to him in his social exile.

They’re already outcast themselves, of course, so they don’t have to move to embrace Chicken Little so much as they have to just welcome him to their world… but it leads to the intriguing suggestion that truth and carefully considered principle are to be found on society’s fringes, not necessarily in the complacent, willfully ignorant middle. The little poultry boy (voiced by Zach Braff: Garden State, Scrubs, in an achingly tender performance that perfectly captures the hurt of being cast as a pariah merely for being honest) is backed up by his pals, the ugly duckling Abby Mallard and the rotund oinker Runt of the Litter — voiced by, respectively, the indispensable Joan Cusack (Ice Princess, Looney Tunes: Back in Action) and the indispensable Steve Zahn (Sahara, Daddy Day Care) — as he renews his claim that the sky is falling when, hey! the sky starts falling around him again. And this time we see it — we see arrayed before us the whole unlikely event as a piece of the sky really does fall to Chicken Little’s feet…

It’s one of the most geekily enchanting things about Chicken Little, how it blends storybook sweetness — the Beatrix Potter-esque imagery of animals of all species dressed as human-being-type people and living in relative harmony in small-town America — with kew-wel science-fiction notions: the bit of sky that falls down around Chicken Little is actually a bit of a spaceship, which leads to a whole huge hilarious parody of War of the Worlds. It’s hard to imagine, with the kind of lead time that these meticulously animated films require, that it could be a direct answer to Spielberg’s movie (and particularly with all the secrecy that surrounded Spielberg’s film), but damn if it doesn’t feel that way, as if it doesn’t feel like a kind of balance to the (appropriately) jittery panic of Spielberg’s the-aliens-are-coming nightmare — I mean, the aliens are coming here, in Chicken Little, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to panic. Things aren’t always as bad as they seem. But denying the truth — even if here, it luckily turns out to be relatively benign — can’t be a good thing.

Look, it’s easy enough to put aside the “oh my god even the cartoons are recognizing how fucked up we are,” which you may want to do if you’re really desperate for a break from the real world and all its despair-inducing gloom. My 11-year-old friend Sheila — who attended my screening with me — and I agree that, for instance, the furry, flame-shaped alien critter who makes an impressive appearance in the last act is easily the absolutely most adorable thing we’ve ever seen in our entire lives, including all the heart-meltingly darling kittens we’ve ever met, cuter and more sweetly touching even than the claw-worshipping creatures of Toy Story. You can’t help but love the immense, silly cleverness of Chicken Little, how the title character is a smart little macgyver and how the local bull runs the local china shop, stuff like that — Chicken Little would be wonderful, glorious fun even if it weren’t a sly commentary on the state of the world today.

But I just can’t help but consider that we’re living in Chicken Little’s world, where the weird little clucker on the fringes who shouts the truth is ignored, and everyone else turns into a different kind of birdbrain — the kind who buries her head in the ground in order to deny reality.

Or not. It’s only a cartoon, after all. Right?

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