16 November 2010

DISNEY ANIMATION: A BAND-AID SOLUTION

14 November, 2003: a dark day in the history of American animation. For it was on that date the the animators at the Florida wing of Walt Disney Feature Animation were given their death sentence by WDFA President David Stainton: they were told to immediately halt production on A Few Good Ghosts, the only project left in the production pipeline at that studio now that Brother Bear was finished (it had premiered only a couple of weeks prior). The official announcement of the closure of the Florida studio waited until January, 2004, but internally, it was all over but the crying.

This came hardly a month after the rumors that Disney was abandoning its traditional cel-style animation in favor of a new all-CGI program had coalesced; though nothing had been stated outright, everybody who still cared about the company, or about cel animation in general, knew that Brother Bear and the upcoming Home on the Range were going to be Disney's last traditionally animated projects. Still, the shuttering of Florida was the most unkindest cut: proof if any were still needed that Disney's corporate masters had no faith in the animation medium at all, that they were cutting back so heavily that just the one studio in California would be enough to handle the workload. In just a few short years - really, only several months - the once-international presence of Walt Disney Feature Animation was reduced to where it began, a single building in Burbank.

These events are not specifically germane to our current subject, Chicken Little, but it is useful to provide a little context. The first 100% fully-rendered CGI feature produced by the Disney Animation Studios as such (Dinosaur being the product of a kludged-together side project - and with live-action backgrounds, at that) was, after all, the product of a certain moment in history, and the business thinking that went along with it. To look at the dominance of computer-animation in the current marketplace, it's rather hard to keep in mind that Toy Story, the first such feature in history, is not a terribly old film. And of course it was all the younger in 2003, when these decisions were being made at Disney: only eight years prior to the Florida closing and the abandonment of traditional animation by the company which had done so much to define it.

In those eight years, the world shifted on its axis. After the giddy heights of The Lion King, released some 17 months before Toy Story, Disney's financial fortunes had been on a fairly stead downward slope; Pixar, meanwhile, was cranking out hit after hit, culminating in 2003's Finding Nemo, which broke The Lion King's box-office record to become the highest-grossing animated feature in history, not adjusted for inflation. Which would no doubt have been galling; but in the early '00s, other companies began to score some major animated hits themselves, something that had never really been done since Don Bluth's attempt at a counter-Disney failed in the late 1980s. DreamWorks Animation's Shrek in 2001 and Blue Sky's Ice Age in 2002 both handily outperformed Disney's own efforts in those years, despite suffering (particularly in the latter case) from a decidedly unsophisticated approach to storytelling.

Reeling from all this sudden competition, Disney's management started to desperately look at the data they could gather: all of these films were CGI (whereas the weak performance of DreamWorks's terrible Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron seemed to confirm that the old school was dead). So Disney needed CGI itself. The non-Pixar films in particular boasted a rather similar contemporary, gag-driven attitude (an impression that 2004's Shrek 2 would do much to cement). Disney could do that. Irrational celebrity voices that added nothing of value but distraction? For sure. And pop songs! Wall-to-wall pop songs! Disney was all over that.

I cannot of course say if Michael Eisner and his crew were honestly sitting in their offices, trying to figure out how best to reduce the hallowed Disney brand name to a shallow DreamWorks clone; but that is certainly how things turned out. Faced with a quickly-changing market for the first time in its history, the company responded with sheer desperation, and that desperation is obvious in every frame of the criminally insipid Chicken Little, by a comfortable margin the worst feature to come out of the Disney Studios since they invented the American feature-length cartoon in 1937. It is worse than even the lowest of DreamWorks's CG features; and I do not exempt the ghastly Shark Tale from this statement.

That Chicken Little serves not just as a departure from the traditions of Disney, but indeed a wholesale "fuck you" to the House That Walt Built is plain from the first moments. After a fairly nifty CG facelift to the classic Walt Disney Pictures logo, we are greeted by the dulcet voice of Garry Marshall, wondering if he should begin his story with "Once upon a time", or with a storybook opening up, or with the sun rising over the African savannah. After rejecting all of these (and dismissing the book, a staple of Disney's fantasies for generations, with an almost visceral shudder), he decides just to begin in medias res, with the day that Chicken Little (Zach Braff) made a damn fool of himself in front of all the town of Oakey Oaks.

What happens over the next few minutes isn't very much like the classic fable, nor like the 1943 Disney WWII satire Chicken Little based upon that fable, but it's the closest we're ever going to get, so enjoy it while you can. Having been clonked on the head by what he insists is a chunk of the sky, Chicken Little manages to get everyone in town in an uproar - a dispiriting, manic uproar, full of lots of strained slapstick, feeling altogether like a version of Tex Avery perpetrated by a culture in which Avery's revolutionary short films are known only by uncertain secondhand accounts - until his dad, Buck Cluck (Marshall) figures out that it must have been an acorn. The town is enraged, and Chicken Little - let us not, by the way, devote an undue amount of time to wondering how surnames function in this universe, for that way lies madness - is made a pariah.

One year later: Chicken Little is painfully unpopular, and his relationship with his father is deeply strained. His only friends at school are Abby Mallard (Joan Cusack), a fairly unattractive young waterfowl whose looks have earned her the nickname "Ugly Duckling". And by "fairly unattractive", I mean, of course, "Jesus Christ, what were the animators thinking when they whipped up that character design?"

Incidentally, Abby was the last character supervised by longtime Disney employee Chris Buck, who left the company to co-direct Surf's Up with Pixar refugge Ash Brannon. A peculiar, interesting, and at times very unsuccessful film that is at any rate a massive step up from Chicken Little.

Sorry, I wandered. His only friends at school are Abby, a big, nervous, homosexually-coded pig named Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn), and an unspeaking fish who wears a diving mask filled with water; he is known to one and all as Fish Out of Water (his bubble effects are voiced by Dan Molina, the film's editor). I sort of detest the character names in this movie, by the way. At least the school bully, Foxy Loxy (Amy Sedaris), and the town mayor, Turkey Lurkey (Don Knotts) have names from the fable.

Eager to win back Buck Cluck's approval and prove to everyone that he's not an idiot, Chicken Little tries out for the baseball team, though he is incredibly small and lightweight. Through the kindly intervention of chance, his first ever time at bat comes during the crucial moments of the championship game, and when he manages to hit the ball, the opposing team is so shocked that he's able to make it almost back to home before they even try to tag him out.

Now a game-winning hero, Chicken Little retires to his bedroom that night, the pride of his father's eye, when something terrible happens: a hexagonal piece of sky with a star on it comes hurtling into his bedroom, and is quickly found to be some kind of projection panel that can exactly mimic whatever is behind it. Horror-stricken beyond words that his notorious past has come back to haunt him, Chicken Little is faced with a crisis.

That's where I'm going to break off, because it lets me point out the important thing: everything from the end of the opening scene until the moment that the panel crashes in Chicken Little's bedroom, is absolutely and completely pointless, and this is a fairly huge portion of a movie that, with credits, runs to about 81 minutes. Everything about the baseball subplot amounts to a great huge reset button, adding fat to the movie's length and ginning up some fake conflict, but the whole thing amounts to a massive parenthesis. Perhaps, just perhaps, Chicken Little's writers, a group of eleven different men and women, had it in mind that their film was to be a bold post-structuralist manifesto, an attempt to instill in children from an early age the idea that a causality-driven screenplay is not inherently more valid than any other narrative form; that in fact the arbitrary stop-start rhythm of life itself is a far more challenging and gratifying way to build a film story.

I am, however, inclined to assume they just didn't care. To believe, rather, that the film was meant to be a big heap of marketable clich├ęs stretched out to feature running time and then boxed up and sent off to America's eager hordes of indiscriminate children.

For that is certainly how the movie plays (oh, the remainder of the story: there are aliens, and Chicken Little is the only one who can save the world from invasion, except it's not really an invasion). Taken as a whole, it is a fevered blend of crazily bright and colorful set design that is as hard on the eyes as it is charming, with some of the most crudely impersonal gags that could possibly be jammed into one kiddie flick. There is a scene - a scene that feels hideously protracted, though I suppose it is only about 20 seconds or so - in which Abby and Runt sing karaoke to the Spice Girls' "Wannabe". That's it, that's the gag. "Wannabe" exists, and so does karaoke, haha! There is maybe an outside possibility that the film is mocking the characters for loving a banal, overplayed pop song from 1996, when it is 2005; that's not at all what it feels like, though, and even if it was, that still wouldn't be funny.

There is one exception: Fish Out of Water, a character who is by no means great comedy, except in the context of Chicken Little, but where everyone else in the film is operating at a level that would make the pop-savvy cast of the same year's Madagascar feel a bit embarrassed, Fish is a blessed stand-out: he's not at all part of the "it's the 00s so lets have a lot of TV-inspired jokes" tradition, but an obvious and unabashed throwback to Harpo Marx.


He's pure cartoon anarchy, a character driven solely by his private, unfathomable whims, amused by everything, even when he is placed in mortal danger. Communicating solely in pantomime, he's weirdly out of place around everyone else, but the movie desperately needs him: he is the only thing that isn't completely sanded-off and market-driven in the whole sorry edifice.

Oh, how I could go on about the script! And on, and on! It is terrible in ways that I can barely get my head around - the structural issue, the nervous denouement where the filmmakers accidentally make it clear that at no point in the entire film where there any dramatic stakes whatsover, besides those randomly invented to give the movie enough of a skeleton to keep moving forward, the wretched dialogue. Which includes a lengthy bit where one character just keeps saying "pee", in the transparent hopes that the audience (who, by now, we understand to be made up entirely of 8-year-olds and sleeping parents) enjoys scatology for the sake of it. And a great many rambling asides made by nearly every character that are plainly jokes: they are structured to be jokes, they are too absurd not to be jokes, and yet they're not funny. Some of them really feel like they ought to be, like just about everything spoken by a dog sports announcer played by Harry Shearer, whose voice promises "this is wry and witty" even while the words he says clang hard upon the ground, a dismal attempt at snappy, stylised writing that fails to be snappy, and is annoying mannered rather than stylised.

But I will not go on about the script, for it depresses me. Anyway, it's not all about the writing, you know. There's also the animation itself to consider, a very bouncy cartoon aesthetic that is much unlike anything in Disney, and not just because of the CG. It has a zaniness and anti-physical bent that is vaguely reminiscent of The Emperor's New Groove, with which it shares director Mark Dindal; but that resemblance goes only as far as both movies share the chaotic mentality of the Looney Tunes series, rather than Disney's usual gentleness. It's round and plasticky and playful, and softly appealing.

Oh wait, no it's not.

Okay, actually, to be fair, there's a certain quality to the production design, by David Womersley (a veteran of Cats Don't Dance, the Warner project with which Dindal made his reputation), that's awfully easy to like. The colors are easy on the eyes, the shapes and lines are exaggerated without crossing the line into surreal, and the whole thing really does have the distinct feeling of a '50s cartoon, with all its broad strokes, given the more tangible form of computer animation.

If that's as far as it went, then we'd be good. Better, anyway. The imagery could never redeem the hellish screenplay, but it could at least offset it a bit.

Unfortunately, the character design is kind of awful. There's a shiny, almost vinyl quality to the sets that works - coupled with the bright but not primary colors, it gives them the feel almost of squishy pre-school toys - but that same vinyl quality extends to the characters as well and it certainly doesn't work there. Every single character in the movie comes in some different flavor of hideousness - the sheer ugliness of Abby Mallard, the unblinking inexpressiveness of Chicken Little, the inhuman, inexplicably rubbery quality of Runt of the Litter.

Then there are the background characters, who have an uncanny, not-quite-human but certainly more than animal nature; the anthropomorphism in this movie freaks me out something terrible, though not in any way that I could necessarily pin down. But that's not the biggest problem: the biggest problem is that anyone who isn't named is so creepily undifferentiated: they all have the same approximate size and shape, even when they're not the same species. It's a massive failure of design, not only because it is boring (which it most certainly is), but because it makes the universe of Chicken Little shallower than it needs to be. This not a living world: it is bound by the limits of its creators' will, and they are not evidently driven to go above and beyond.

Obviously, the morale of the animation team couldn't have been terribly high, which I'm sure did not help to push them to every-higher levels of achievement; nor could the switch to a new medium have been terribly comfortable. Most of the supervisory staff came, if not from Disney itself, certainly from a background in traditional animation: men like Nik Ranieri, Chris Buck, and Doug Bennett had been working for a long time, but always secure in knowing that the final animation would look extremely close to their drawings. Not one supervising animator had any experience with computer animation that went further back than Dinosaur, and it shows in a uncertain expressiveness in the characters' faces, and stiff and unconvincing body language; a world away from the fluid, subtle acting being done by the Pixar animators, who'd been working in this medium for as much as two decades.

Which is an important comparison to make, for the not-so-secret truth of Chicken Little is that it was a test run, to see if Disney could survive in a CG-dominated marketplace without Pixar. Negotiations between the two companies had been in a bad place: Michael Eisner was fairly open in his claims that Disney didn't need Pixar (and for his arrogance, was forced from power long before Chicken Little opened), while Steve Jobs and John Lasseter were perpetually angry at the power imbalance between their studio, which made all the creative choices and had all the talent, and their distributor, who oh-so-casually made pots of money for doing nothing but staying out of the way.

The story of Chicken Little has an indeterminate ending: it made a healthy sum of money, comfortably more than any of Disney's traditionally-animated projects had since Tarzan, and that came out in a whole different millennium. Yet something about it - maybe it didn't make enough money, maybe it was the critical drubbing the film received - left the Disney execs spooked. In one stroke, the film established a new direction for the Disney animated feature - not only did it demonstrate the financial superiority of CG features, it was also the first project released in Real D 3-D, introducing that terrible new revenue stream to the world - and left the men in power uncertain if that direction was sustainable. Less than six months after the movie premiered, Disney purchased Pixar outright, and gave Lasseter full creative control over both animation studios, thereby ensuring that there would be no more Chicken Littles.

Thank God.

11 comments:

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

When I was binge-watching Disney movies, previews for this thing kept coming up and had to be frantically skipped over. I don't know if I've ever seen a preview that so explicitly telegraphed the movie's joyless cynicism so clearly. Quite unpleasant.

fattom23 said...

Tim, you didn't (directly, at least) answer our burning question: is this film actually worse than Treasure Planet?

MrRoivas said...

Am I right in guessing that the final shot is from the obligatory rip off of the Dreamworks pop song ending?

Tim said...

GeoX- it is worse than the trailers, as I remember them.

fattom23- Yes. Yes it is. If you'll wander over here, you'll find that I've created a new category to describe CL's badness.

MrRoivas- Specifically, a cover of "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" sung by the cast. You haven't lived until you hear Garry Marshall warbling a line written for Kiki Dee.

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

For whatever reason, I didn't actually hate Treasure Planet--not that it was great or even particularly good, but it did not cause me physical pain, and the Long John Silver character was well-done enough to redeem it to a limited extent. However, I think I more than made up for this critical weakness by hating Atlantis: the Lost Empire WAY, WAY, WAY more than you did. Were there a category entitled Abominations Before God and Man, that's where I'd put that one. Would I hate Chicken Little even more? That is a question I am determined never to answer.

MrRoivas said...

Tim, would you say this or Meet the Robinson's is more offensive?

Tim said...

Offensive, now that's a tricky word. Let me get back to you after I re-watch Robinsons this weekend.

Meg said...

There's something refreshing about a review that doesn't feel guilty about ripping a film to shreds with delight. And if any movie deserved such treatment, it is probably Chicken Little. It was released when I was in that age range where, in an attempt to be Mature, I was Too Old For Cartoons, Thank You, but I watched it while babysitting and I will never, ever forgive those children for making me watch this film with them twice in one evening.

Jade said...

I know I'm necroposting, but your review made me want to go out and watch Chicken Little so I could just revel in it.

For me, the "wannabe" scene was immensely funny, but not really for the intended reasons.

When Chicken Little sings "We are the Champions" it's so overprocessed it actually hurts (particularly jarring since he's just singing to himself in his bedroom). I found myself praying they would come to their senses and turn off the Autotune.

Then Wannabe happened and I was begging for them to turn it back on.

Trish said...

Yeesh, those supporting characters look like they're right out of a higher-productions-values version of Disney's "ToonTown" RPG! And what is it with bizarre CGI animated films and Elton John songs?

mwh1980 said...

Yes, you've pretty much summed up alot of what I have wrong with this film.

It really did feel like the bottom of the barrel, where Disney was 'copying' Dreamworks in how 'Shrek' was done. The only problem was, there was very little regarding emotional story in 'Chicken Little.' In a way, it feels like one of the most 'cruel' films there is.

At least in some instances where a character is treated cruelly in some Disney films (say 'Cinderella' or 'The Rescuers'), it's at a tolerable level. Here, it's like there's so little hope for CL, that if he went to an anti-bullying group, even THEY'D be making fun of him.

So much of the film is just fast, loud, and noisy, that soon you wish they'd just tell a story instead of yelling at you. Runt's screaming and 'showtune-itis' soon failed to be charming.

As well, hate the 'duh' use of the song 'End of the World as we know it.'

This pretty much felt like Disney had been buried under 6 feet of dirt, and then, 'Meet the Robinsons' began the attempts to claw its way back out of the ground (MTR wasn't perfect, but I at least got emotional in some areas).