Pop Culture

‘Chicken Little’ plays it too safe

The sky has been falling for the past five years at Disney’s venerable animation studios, whose golden touch has turned leaden with a string of forgettable cartoon flicks.

The pioneer of hand-drawn cartoons, Disney now finds itself chasing upstart competitors into the digital age with “Chicken Little,” the studio’s first totally computer-animated film. It’s a fitful start, likely to please kids and their parents without wowing them as did DreamWorks’ “Shrek” movies or Pixar’s “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles.”

“Chicken Little” is precisely that, a nice little trifle that’s too chicken to do anything but play it safe. The moderately cute characters dash through slapstick mayhem more in line with Looney Tunes shorts than a Disney cartoon. And the story is a derivative mishmash of pop-culture references woven into a not-so-irreverent tweaking of fairy-tale conventions that Disney’s classic movies helped perpetuate.

You know the initial part of the story, which director Mark Dindal (“The Emperor’s New Groove”) spins in a frenetic opening sequence as Chicken Little (voiced by Zach Braff) cries wolf that the sky is falling. His town goes batty with panic, only to declare Chicken Little public nuisance No. 1 after it’s determined our hero was misled by a falling acorn.

A year later, the little guy and his widower dad, Buck Cluck (Garry Marshall), still are trying to live down the shame. But wouldn’t you know it? Just when things start looking up for Chicken Little, a piece of the sky really does fall on him in the form of a spaceship panel that signals the arrival of encroaching aliens.

Of course, no one believes him, and Chicken Little becomes an object of ridicule again. He plucks up his courage and takes on the alien menace, aided by his school pals — 900-pound piglet Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn), Abby “Ugly Duckling” Mallard (Joan Cusack) and Fish Out of Water (whose burbly vocal noises are provided by the movie’s editor, Dan Molina).

Rounding out the voice cast are Patrick Stewart, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Amy Sedaris, Harry Shearer, Don Knotts and Wallace Shawn.

“Chicken Little” opens far more strongly than it closes, an early string of amusing zingers and sight gags petering out amid a lot of noise and commotion. The movie does present a nice father-son dynamic that will make parents happy to show something wholesome to the little ones.

Also in “Shrek”-lite fashion, the movie tosses in a succession of familiar pop songs and Hollywood asides with references to “King Kong,” “Star Wars,” “War of the Worlds, Disney’s own “The Lion King” and Homer Simpson’s trademark “D’Oh!” There’s even a Mickey Mouse watch thrown in.

The alien theme feels like a rehash of “Lilo & Stitch,” one of Disney’s few recent cartoon successes among duds such as “Home on the Range,” “Treasure Planet” and “Atlantis.”

The animation is sturdy and respectable, though far short of the razzle-dazzle Pixar and DreamWorks produce. The design leaves the characters cute without quite being cuddly, the settings cozy without being terribly clever or memorable.

If it were the first computer-animation foray by any other studio, “Chicken Little” would seem like a good start. Yet fair or unfair, you expect more than just a good start from Disney, which took risks in Hollywood’s golden age to create feature-length gems such as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Bambi” and made true epics of animation well into the 1990s.

With its distribution deal for Pixar cartoons set to end after next year’s “Cars,” Disney needs to build a strong pipeline of homegrown digital cartoons if it wants to avoid becoming the studio that animation passed by.