First Theatrical Release: November 4, 2005
First Home Viewing Release: March 21, 2006
My Rating: 4/5 stars
Where I Found It: My library’s DVD collection
Bechdel Test Score: Failed. Female characters include Abby Mallard (The Ugly Duckling) and Foxy Loxy, but they never talk to each other.
I don’t have a lot of regrets when it comes to my Life in Disney. I don’t regret working three jobs during the summer of 1999 so I could visit Disney World for one week in 2000. I don’t regret how many hours of my life were fueled into Aladdin. I don’t regret spending four years of writing energy primarily writing Disney fan-fiction, or that I was still spending my money (out of a very limited budget) on Disney dolls when I was 25. I don’t regret that I’ve purchased cereal boxes and bath towels just because they have Elsa on them.
What I do regret is that I paid to see Home on the Range in the theater, and totally let this hidden gem slip by the following year — and all the years since then.
This is one of the few movies in this project that I had never seen before because I had never been interested in it. Because I didn’t KNOW. I didn’t know that it would get high school SO RIGHT or that it would have some subversive things to say about beauty and about the movie industry or that it would strike just the right balance between anthropomorphic humor and animal humor (I mean, come on, dogs wearing cones when they get sports injuries? Priceless.)
But now I know the truth, and I am not afraid to claim it: Chicken Little is a damn good movie.
Homage Paid to the Original
I was expecting this to be a movie where my panties would get in a bunch because of Disney’s decision to take a female lead and morph it into a male. But after reading “Henny Penny,” I couldn’t say that HP (aka Chicken Little) was a particularly flattering portrayal of the female sex. In some ways, creating a story around a female character who no one takes seriously is not really anything new. When no one takes a male character seriously, especially when his father is a puffed-up former jock, well, that garners our attention and sympathy. Ultimately, though, there is so little of substance in the original “Henny Penny” that there isn’t much Disney could have done to “ruin it” — instead, I think it improved the story significantly. It takes as its jumping off point what is often the best starting place for a retelling: the question of “What if?” “What IF the sky was really falling, or, at least, someone had good reason to believe it was?” With that, Disney unspools the story of what might cause one to believe that a piece of the sky had fallen — it must be a bit more than an acorn or an apple, else it’s too quickly dismissed.
While greatly expanding on the story’s premise (no, there were no aliens in the original), the movie also pays it delightful homage — mostly in its characters’ names. Every animal mentioned in “Henny Penny” is called during roll at Chicken Little’s high school, with names like Goosey-Loosey and Foxy Loxy. They all live in a place that has as little creativity as its inhabitants: Oakey Oaks. In the original, Foxy Loxy is the villain who ends up eating all the other animals who are panicked about the falling sky. In Disney’s reboot, she is cast as the meanie popular girl. Works for me.
But Disney turns the “lesson” from the original fable completely on its head. While “Henny Penny” seems to be a story about the dangers of being gullible and silly, Chicken Little‘s ultimate message is about paying attention to the people you love — even when they sound crazy — because they just might be right.
(This is where I could get a little irritated at the gender switch of the main character: in a story about the dangers of gullibility, we have a female lead; when it becomes a story about the importance of listening to the underdog, it needs a male lead.)
But I’m willing to overlook that in favor of the many other things this movie does RIGHT.
Outcasts Redeemed (Except the Fat Ones)
For a story that sells itself as being about an “alien invasion,” the movie is about halfway in before any aliens arrive on the scene at all. That time is spent building up how disheartening life is as an outcast — Chicken Little, a nerdy runt, is unable to live down his reputation of warning the town one year earlier that “the sky was falling” with nothing to come of it. As he’s late for school, gets his pants stuck in bubble gum and has to figure out how to cover his legs, and gets stuck in his own locker, anyone who remembers middle school (or has had a bad day) can empathize. (The movie makes reference to the characters being in “high school,” but it definitely comes across more as middle school, based on the clique-yness, the maturity level of the students, and the awkwardness of it all, some of which has been outgrown by high school.)
First we see Chicken Little and his friends utterly fail at dodge ball (for which their gym teacher has divided them into two teams: “popular” and “unpopular”). Then Chicken Little tries out for baseball in hopes of making his dad proud, only to find himself benched for the majority of every game and practice. During all this we see Foxy Loxy basking in her glory as the team’s star player. When Chicken Little gets up to bat, he ends up making a home run because the whole outfield is snoozing, never expecting him to get on base, let alone home.
And all I could keep thinking was, “Wow, this movie was clearly made by people who hated middle school.”
Disney’s canon is full of “outsiders” who are, well, smokin’ hot. Milo was the first outsider who actually LOOKED like a geek (although he was the hottest of all by my standards!). But it’s utterly believable that Chicken Little and his friends really ARE at the bottom of the food chain in their school because they look the parts. So while Aladdin’s deception gave me a metaphor for what it feels like to be in middle school, Chicken Little would have given me a movie about the suckiness of ACTUAL middle school. Too bad I was already 24 when it came out, and also that I waited an additional 10 years to see it.
My favorite part of the movie by far was its portrayal of Abby Mallard, aka, The Ugly Duckling. Unlike the Beast who is more intriguing and cuddly than ugly, Abby is not “pretend ugly.” She has just the characteristics that would characterize someone as “ugly” in middle school — buck teeth, unevenly spaced eyes, dull gray feathers, and stringy pigtails. But in an industry where “ugly” characters are almost universally relegated to the roles of villain or comic relief. this movie allows Abby to be more than that. She is Chicken Little’s best friend and the most emotionally intelligent character in the movie, thanks to her devoted reading of relationship articles in teen magazines. She is an incredibly supportive friend who is not afraid to list Chicken Little’s good qualities when he is feeling down. She likes to dance and sing to karaoke, and she is up for the adventure of uncovering the mystery of the falling sky and rescuing their friend Fish who gets inadvertently “abducted” by aliens. And perhaps best of all?
SHE NEVER GETS A MAKEOVER SCENE.
She’s allowed to stay her sweet, awkward, “ugly” self through the whole movie — but her inner beauty is so strong that she stops appearing ugly a couple scenes in. Chicken Little knows this, too, and works up the nerve to tell her during the movie’s climax scenes, “By the way, I’d like to say I’ve always found you extremely attractive.”
My 34-year-old heart gave a very middle-school-like swoon.
THIS Disney movie should be required viewing for this scene alone. Chicken Little is a beau who has managed to figure out what really matters by the time he’s 14 years old, and a powerful counterpoint to the way we’ve seen the likes of Aladdin, Prince Phillip, and Prince Eric moon over their object-of-affection’s physical beauty.
Unfortunately, this movie doesn’t go quite far enough. Another of Chicken Little’s friends is the morbidly obese “Runt” — and while the writers could see beyond Abby’s “ugliness,” they weren’t broad-minded enough to make Runt a similarly well-rounded (no pun intended) character. He’s an outcast like CL and Abby, and while he’s basically a good friend with one interest of his own (music), he’s also a coward and, predictably, a chronic overeater and set up as a character that it’s OK for the audience to ridicule (in fact, the movie invites it upon his first introduction, when his name “Runt” is called before we see him bulging out of a school desk that is far too small for him.)
It’s too bad Disney was ready for a nerdy kid to be more than the nerd, and ugly kid to be more than ugly, but not for a fat kid to be anything but, well, fat. (He does get a girl in the end, but only because she’s been brainwashed by the aliens.)
Subversion of Its Own Medium
People often cite Frozen as the first Disney movie to subvert its own tropes, which just proves that not enough people saw or remembered Chicken Little. At the end of the movie, Chicken Little and his friends go to see the premiere of a movie based on his exploits, which turns the scrawny CL into a brawny space captain and the homely Abby into a buxom beauty. In other words, a story that was essentially about ordinary people (animals) doing extraordinary things transforms into an epic film about gorgeous people and eye-popping special effects, any whiff of reality properly swept away.
As part of this project, I have also been reading the source materials that inspired various Disney movies, and I have seen Disney do this again and again: pick up nuanced or even troubling material and sanitize and/or beautify it to make it more palatable to the masses. The hideous beast becomes huggable. The lazy Aladdin becomes a poor but morally upstanding youth. The disfigured and dumb Quasimodo is given a gentle, kindly voice and an intelligent personality. So it’s especially gratifying to see the way Disney pokes fun at the “Hollywood-ization” of source stories.
If anyone knows something about this, it’s Disney.
And for at least one movie, it’s ‘fessing up.