Is the big green head of the Wizard of Oz still scary? It sure used to be. Back in the days when The Wizard of Oz was broadcast once each Spring, the moment when that looming lightbulb head boomed “Silence!” was the closest a seven-year-old came to numinous awe. (Though it was the witch cackling “I’ll get you, my pretty,” that caused my little sister’s feet to thump-thump-thump away down the hall.)
I ask because a good bit of Chicken Little is just as scary. Giant heads looming out of darkness and thundering “Silence!” is just one example. This came as a surprise to me, and to a fair proportion of the audience, judging from the startled voices of toddlers demanding to be removed from the theater immediately, and parents reassuring them that it would be all right. Hey, it’s Chicken Little. What could be more innocuous?
In the original story, as you recall, a chicken is hit on the head by an acorn and believes the sky is falling. He gathers all his friends (Turkey Lurky, Loosey Goosey, Fleming Lemming) and leads them around the village, sounding the alert. The group gets commandeered by a sympathetic Foxey Loxey, who entices them to the safety of his cave, where they meet a delicious end. This story, like many a classic fairy tale, has a grim conclusion, because the goal was to teach children wariness in a dangerous world.
It’s to be expected that Disney would alter the story for this, the studio’s first solo attempt at computer animation, following its recently concluded partnership with Pixar. The Disney-Pixar collaboration was abundantly successful, both financially and artistically, giving us the Toy Story movies, Monsters, Inc, and most recently, The Incredibles. How’s Disney, one-time king of animation, going to do on its own?
(In fact, this is the second time Disney has animated Chicken Little. An eight-minute short in 1943 aimed to teach wartime audiences to be wary of anti-American propaganda. The original script went a bit overboard in that goal, and some elements got trimmed back during production, in hopes of keeping the cartoon timely after the war. Originally, it called for Foxy Loxey to be seen reading Mein Kampf, and for the chickens’ graves to be marked with swastikas. Some fun, eh, kids?)
For today’s children, it’s assumed that the worst thing that can happen to you is embarrassment. The humiliating episode with the acorn has already transpired before Chicken Little gets to its opening titles. Chicken Little himself is an undersized, picked-on high-school student (voiced by Zach Braff). He is befriended by an odd assortment of pals: the Ugly Duckling (Joan Cusack; the character is transplanted here from the Hans Christian Anderson tale), an oversized pig named “Runt of the Litter,” and a fish wearing a water-filled helmet, named “Fish out of Water.” Thankfully, that concludes the run of Dances with Wolves nomenclature.
Chicken and his pals are picked on at school; even the coach tells the class to split into two dodgeball teams, “Popular and unpopular.” Most popular is Foxey Loxey (Amy Sedaris), an athletic gal with a red ponytail and braces on her pointy teeth. The first hour of the film concerns Chicken’s attempts to become a baseball hero, like his dad was, and to make dad proud. A busy, absurd sequence takes us to the expected happy conclusion of this dream.
So far, pretty much expected. Then, that night while Chicken is gazing from his bedroom window at a star, an octagonal section of sky comes loose and clatters into the room. We launch into a whole second story, one which will be much more alarming for smaller tykes. Chicken discovers that the mysterious plate has computer circuitry on one side, while the other is capable of replicating an image of whatever lies behind it (originally, a starry sky; now, Chicken’s bedroom wallpaper). Before you know it, Chicken and his friends are fleeing through a midnight cornfield being chased by alien spaceships. (By this point, a little guy somewhere was crying steadily.) They manage to get inside the spaceship, where unpleasant things are seen and hair-raising things occur. When the spaceship departs, a baby alien is left behind, which triggers an invasion by the “galactic armada.” As the Ugly Duckling says, “It’s like War of the Worlds out there!”
Yes, it is, and I’m glad I didn’t bring my five-year-old granddaughter. Who is Disney aiming at? Is it assumed that viewers will be old enough not to get overwhelmed by this? The day I attended, the audience attracted by the “Chicken Little” title clearly expected something palatable to very young children. Or does Disney gamble that kids have changed and toughened up, and that even little ones would now laugh at the Wizard’s glowing head?
Apart from the unexpected scariness quotient, the movie is weak in other ways. The gang of buddies doesn’t really hang together very well (“Fish out of Water”?) The Ugly Duckling’s obsessive insistence on a father-and-son chatfest is funny enough, but when that momentous conversation finally takes place it is neither moving nor dramatically useful. On the plus side, it’s good to have Don Knotts back as Mayor Turkey Lurkey (who offers the aliens, successively, the key to the city, the key to his car, and a Tic Tac.) The animation is very strong, and full of delightful details: Chicken Little’s bedroom carries an egg-shape theme through even to the doorknobs. But apart from these, the best thing about this movie turns out to be its brilliant advertising campaign. Now it’s Disney’s turn to be scared.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.