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'Chicken Little,' you're no 'Toy Story'

Disney's digital animation can't bump Pixar in the pecking order

We bring you this breaking business report: The sky is falling.

At least over the house that Walt built. The word is that negotiations between Pixar and the Walt Disney Company are being put on hold this weekend pending the release of ''Chicken Little," Disney's first in-house attempt at a digital-animation blockbuster along the lines of Pixar's ''The Incredibles" and ''Toy Story" (and DreamWorks' ''Shrek" and ''Shark Tale").

I repeat: The sky is falling. ''Chicken Little" is shiny and peppy, with some solid laughs and dandy vocal performances, but even a small child may sense how forced this movie is -- how hard it tries to be all things to all audiences. As for parents, they won't be able to miss the baling wire holding the story together. The film is being released to selected theaters in ''Disney Digital 3D" as well as the regular 2-D version this critic watched, and, in truth, it needs all the bells and whistles it can get.

The primary problem with ''Chicken Little" is that it's two movies, each of which cancels out the other. The first half is a gentle fable about a misfit cockerel (voice of ''Scrubs" star Zach Braff) who can't seem to bond with his kindly jock dad, Buck Cluck (Garry Marshall); there's much talk of ''closure" between the sight gags, and the film occasionally stops in its chicken tracks so characters can share their emotions while listening to drippy soundtrack songs.

Older kids will get itchy with all this touchy-feely stuff even as their younger siblings may find it reassuring. Those same toddlers, however, will probably freak when the movie suddenly turns into ''War of the Worlds Jr."

See, Chicken Little was bopped on the head by a sky-colored hexagon that promptly vanished, causing no end of derision from the good animal folk of Oakey Oaks. A year passes, and the movie seems to climax early with a baseball game in which the little fella unexpectedly saves the day. (I hope I'm not spoiling things for grown-ups reading this. As for you kids, put the newspaper down right now and walk away.) Then he's hit by another sky-tile, and this time he has back-up witnesses in his nerdy school pals Abby ''Ugly Duckling" Mallard (Joan Cusack), neurotic Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn), and Fish Out of Water (Dan Molina), a guppy in a water-filled diving helmet.

The tile comes from the underside of a UFO; the friends suddenly realize their town is on the verge of being overrun by alien robots with long, whippy arms (they look like evil octopus sperm, so help me God). ''Chicken Little" introduces a cute, fuzzy alien baby to help this go down more easily -- and you can bet you'll be able to buy the tie-in toy as soon as you leave the theater -- but the fact remains the movie has gone dark in a hurry. An overly fast wrap-up only adds to the sense of CGI multiple-personality disorder: The film's a weird slumgullion of ''funny aminal" comedy, personal growth, and alien invasion. With classic disco hits.

The only part that really works is the comedy: The gags are bright and they keep on coming, tossed over the plate with the fizzy topical references any self-respecting family comedy has to have these days. ''The Wizard of Oz," Cosmopolitan magazine, ''Raiders of the Lost Ark," the cinematic cliches of baseball movies -- all come in for a wink and a nudge and the occasional bare-faced theft. (The producers of ''Pee-wee's Big Adventure" called -- they want their ending back.)

You don't mind too much, though, because the timing's sharp and the casting is deep and pleasurable. Wallace Shawn, Patrick Stewart, Amy Sedaris, Fred Willard, and Harry Shearer show up for small bits, and even if Don Knotts doesn't do much as Mayor Turkey Lurkey, I'm just glad the man's still working. And all movies, live or animated, should have Joan Cusack in them.

Still, ''Chicken Little" doesn't come close to the genius ease of Pixar -- the way John Lasseter's company turns out movies that effortlessly click on all levels. This is the difference between filmmaking that's organic and ''property" creation based on market-tested blueprints and careful retrofitting. The worker bees at Walt Disney Feature Animation have disassembled the Pixar model to its gears and springs and put it back together, and all that's missing is the soul.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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