Little is the third elaborate and expensive industrial product
(I almost said "movie" or "film") whose principal
fabricator (I almost said "director") was Mark Dindal.
It is an odd item, even by the warped standards prevailing in Hollywood.
Big-studio movies now cost, on average, around $64 million, and
some, like the new King Kong, cost well north of $200 million.
To expect any kind of artistry in most such films is simply not
realistic. I wrote eight years ago in Hollywood Cartoons: American
Animation in Its Golden Age that the amounts associated with
a film like The Lion Kingproduction costs, box-office
receipts, ancillary income from licensing and sequels and a Broadway
versionwere so huge that launching such a film had come to
resemble introducing a new model of an automobile. That is true
even more today. With so many dollars at stake, studio bosses are
more intent than ever on managing risk, and so they hire compliant
people who are willing to approach filmmaking as if it were not
a job for an artist but a complex engineering challenge instead.
Mark Dindal is from all appearances exactly that kind of director.
That is presumably why Disney hired him to direct Chicken Little,
a computer-animated film that marks the end of the studio's long
allegiance to hand-drawn animation.
Dindal's cooperative attitude evidently trumped the poor performance
of his previous two features, including Disney's own lamentable
Emperor's New Groove. According to the New York Times,
Dindal's original story line for Chicken Little concerned
"a young girl who went to summer camp to build confidence so
she wouldn't overreact." When David Stainton, newly installed
as head of Disney animation, rejected that idea, Dindal obediently
went back to work and turned the story "into a tale of a boy
trying to save his town from space aliens." If, as seems likely,
Dindal had no emotional commitment to his original version of the
story, he certainly betrays no such commitment to the version that
reached the screen.
Chicken Little's "tale" is like a negligible comic-book
storyI remember reading such hacked-out stuff in some of the
Dell funny-animal titles of the fiftiesbut that's not the
problem. Gifted directors have always found ways to transform crass
material into individual statements; that interplay between art
and commerce is one of the things that has made the best American
studio filmmaking so exciting and interesting. There's nothing like
that in Chicken Little. To a remarkable extentI can't
recall anything comparable, at least not when an animated film had
the faintest claim to respectabilityDindal stayed outside
his story and his characters, manipulating them mechanically. For
almost the entire length of the film, there's not a trace of the
director's personal involvement in his work.
Such cool objectivity may have commended Dindal to his superiors
at Disney, but a director who distances himself from his film reduces
rather than enhances his control. Because Dindal had no intuitive
grasp of his story, Chicken Little's rhythms are jerkythe
film hurtles through what is supposed to be comic action, stepping
on its own jokes, then abruptly goes limp at what are supposed to
be heartfelt moments. Those moments in particular are loaded with
superfluous dialogue; this is surely the talkiest feature cartoon
ever. The whining chicken hero evokes Woody Allen, but that's not
why he talks so much. All of Dindal's characters chatter unceasingly
because there was no other way that Dindal himself could know what
they were supposed to be thinking.
It was only at the very end of Chicken Little, during an
over-the-top parody of a "Hollywood version" of the story,
that I sensed an emotional connection between director and film;
it was then that I laughed for the first time. Mark Dindal should
be making full-blooded satires, rather than kiddie films full of
bogus sentiment, but I doubt that he can find such work in present-day
Hollywood. That's too bad for him, and for us.
A postscript: I saw Chicken Little in 3-D at a theater on
Broadway. I'm glad I saw it in that format, but 3-D doesn't add
a lot to the viewing experience. Only a few scenes include effects
that seem to have been designed with 3-D in mind; otherwise there's
only the enhanced illusion of depth that I'm told is relatively
easy to achieve when computer-animated films are translated into
3-D. There's certainly nothing comparable to the enrichment that
Imax 3-D adds to The Polar Express. The lesson being, of
course, that if you start with a good film, 3-D may make it even
better, but if you start with something as cold and dead as Chicken
Little, 3-D can't bring it to life.
[Posted December 12, 2005]