2004 – 2006 was a really rough time for Disney. With the diminishing returns on their traditionally-animated movie, they decided to move into computer animation full-time while being walloped by Pixar, DreamWorks and critics for mining their rich history to make a series of terrible direct-to-video sequels. While they were bringing their CG animation studio up to speed, they agreed to distribute a few cartoons from other houses — this is when they dropped Valiant (remember that movie with Ewan MacGregor as an earnest WWII pigeon?) and The Wild (with Keifer Sutherland and Jim Belushi as best-bud lion and squirrel, respectively). Neither one of them did very well in theatres.
In the meantime, Pixar was nearing the end of their original contract but still pushing the envelope of computer animation the entire time. The Incredibles, helmed by Brad Bird (The Iron Giant), was the first film directed by someone outside of the company. The gamble paid off — it won two Academy Awards, the Annie Award for Best Animated Feature, and became the first cartoon to win a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. While Finding Nemo was the obvious crowd-pleaser (making over $830M worldwide), The Incredibles was the critical darling that still earned its stripes as a bona-fide blockbuster.
Home On The Range (2004)
This is a strange and frustrating movie, mostly because it almost works. Roseanne Barr stars as Maggie, a prize-winning cow who is forced to relocated to a tiny farm called Patch O’ Heaven after all of her fellow cattle were stolen and her previous owner was bankrupted by the theft. With the help of fellow bovines Mrs. Caloway (Judi Dench) and Grace (Jennifer Tilly), she uncovers the plot to buy up all of the land for nefarious purposes and saves her newfound home. It’s a neat little story that aims for a certain Americana charm — and almost achieves it.
There’s a lot to like about Home On The Range, actually. Both the prim and proper Mrs. Caloway and the air-headed Grace are really fun to watch as they bicker their way through the story, and the movie is filled with supporting characters who are actually awesome. There’s Buck, the vain stallion frienemy of the cows; Alameda Slim, whose method of stealing the cows is a true highlight; his henchmen, three dull triplets who can’t understand Slim’s schemes for the life of them; and Lucky Jack, a three-legged rabbit who serves as half crazy guide, half old coot. A couple of sequences embrace the madcap Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic, and this is when things work best; there’s a wonderfully crazy energy that’s infectiously funny.
But Barr’s Maggie just can’t carry the movie on her ample back. A lot of the dialogue meant to establish her character or endear us to her just falls flat, one pun or one-liner after the other. When a joke actually lands, the script hammers it home enough to kill the cleverness of it. And more than once, characterization is sacrificed for plot with one or more of the three heroines doing something weird just because a beat needs to happen at a particular spot.
It’s a shame, really. I’m not too familiar with the behind-the-scenes conditions surrounding the making of the movie, but the writing was already on the wall by the time Home On The Range was being promoted — I remember it being touted as the last traditionally-animated film from Disney Studios. With a little more time and polish (and perhaps a recast of the lead), it could have been a decent if minor entry into the animated canon. Instead, it’s a trivial footnote in Disney’s history and widely regarded as one of their absolute worst films.
Still, I’m not sure it quite deserves the reputation it’s gotten over the years. It’s inoffensive, perhaps forgettable, but not a complete failure. There are worse ways to spend your time, which is damning with faint praise, I realize.
The Incredibles (2004)
Seven months after Disney bombed with Home On The Range, Pixar dropped The Incredibles. Just like every release before it, this movie took a major leap forward in computer animation technology — this time giving us the best-realized human characters we’ve ever seen, animating clothes of varying materials and realistic hair wonderfully. Since Brad Bird had come from a traditional animation background, it also represented a fruitful marriage of the old and new; Bird brought in several animators who had worked with him on The Iron Giant and tried to incorporate lessons from Disney’s Nine Old Men into the Pixar production model.
Bob Parr is an insurance agent and a retired superhero who used to go by Mr. Incredible. Public opinion had turned against supers some years before, forcing them to give up costumed crime-fighting and disappear into private life. Frustrated by his lack of purpose and forced deference to broader social conventions, he’s approached by a mysterious woman named Mirage for “freelance” superhero work. Bob leaps at the chance to become Mr. Incredible again, but he gets more than he bargained for and finds his entire family quickly embroiled in a fight against evil borne from past mistakes.
For a long time, this was my absolute favorite Pixar movie; while its ranking has fallen on subsequent viewings it’s not because it’s not as good as I thought it was — other movies are just that much better. Even still, The Incredibles is truly a feat of animation; the character and setting design establishes a world that’s both relatably contemporary and retro-futuristic; the themes are well-baked into the plot, which is driven by the characters instead of the other way around; the dialogue is brisk, clever and profound enough that character motivations are discovered in different places on subsequent viewings. Every member of the Parr family gets a moment to shine, and it’s especially great to watch the young children grow into their legacy as super-powered individuals. Just about everything works here, even though the movie is complex and intricate. Writer and director Brad Bird had a distinct vision for what the film should be, and achieved it nearly flawlessly.
In retrospect, though, the themes of The Incredibles have problematic implications. One of the central ideas is that extraordinary people should be allowed to be the best they can be, and that’s a compelling argument. But the way it’s presented doesn’t quite address the feelings of the normal people who have been relegated to bystander status in these god-like struggles. Syndrome because a super-villain because he was roundly rejected by Mr. Incredible, having no powers of his own and being just a kid. While Bob and his wife Helen relate better to children many years later (there’s a particularly great scene where Helen lays out the stakes for her son and daughter, telling them that these people will try to kill them), they also never acknowledge their part in creating the situation they’ve found themselves in. Syndrome oversteps his bounds in typical supervillain fashion, but the kernel of the point he’s trying to make is…actually sound.
But here’s the thing: the fact that The Incredibles raises these concerns and invites these kinds of arguments speaks to the calibre of its story. Really great superhero stories often get us thinking about the individual’s role in society and explore the tension between the freedom to be who we are and the responsibility each of us owes to our fellow man. This movie belongs in the pantheon; The Incredibles isn’t just a great animated film, or a great Pixar movie — it’s a great superhero story, too. It really is something special.
Chicken Little (2005)
This is the worst film Walt Disney Animation has ever made. The character design (with the exception of the protagonist and a few others) is generally awful, the dialogue is groan-inducing, the story is nonsense — though the twist almost works, and almost every decision made is a mistake that takes the entire production further from where it needs to be. You get the feeling that Chicken Little was Disney’s attempt to get with the times, but it really never understood why people gravitated towards DreamWorks’ brand of pop-culture-skewering, post-modern humor. It is the film equivalent of Steve Buscemi in a backwards hat and skateboard.
Chicken Little is a tiny little chick with a big imagination. In the prologue, he causes a panic by saying that the sky is falling, only for his “evidence” to disappear once the townsfolk gather around. He’s been living down the embarrassment — and trying to make his father proud of him — ever since. At school, he’s bullied by the star athlete, a vixen named Foxy Loxy, and supported by three misfit friends. Despite Foxy being the breakout player of the season, Chicken Little hits a home run during the championship game and is hailed as a hero and receives all he ever wanted. Which is just about the right time for the sky to fall again.
There are the makings of a good story here. There’s nothing wrong with telling a fable about learning to believe in yourself, even when you are forced to take action alone. The slow, awkward way that Chicken Little and his father learn to connect through the course of the movie could be emotionally resonant for a lot of families in the audience. And with a lighter touch, the movie’s self-referential humor could have been mildly clever. The big twist — the sky is falling because it’s an elaborate camouflage constructed by space aliens — could have been a bonkers development that spins the story off into great and unexplored territory that also forces the protagonists to complete their arcs and deal with the situation. But none of that happens, and none of that is true. It just stinks.
The worst part (and thanks to My Husband, The Dragon for pointing this out) is what happens to Foxy Loxy. Even though she’s set up to be a clear secondary antagonist and she’s kind of bitchy to Chicken Little, she also works really hard to be good at baseball and busts through gender stereotypes to follow her passion. She’s living the life that Chicken Little is afraid to because he’s chasing external validation instead. During the alien invasion, her brain is scrambled so that instead of being an exuberant, kind of jerky tomboy she becomes a petticoat-wearing belle who loves singing old pop songs that are cheap to buy usage fees for — just like Little ally Runt (an enormous, nervous pig). When the aliens offer to change her back, Runt says “No, she’s PERFECT this way.” And then they LEAVE HER LIKE THAT.
It’s one thing to make a movie that fails on so many levels, but it’s quite another to send the message that girls who are driven and athletic would be so much happier being the constructed fantasy of a misunderstood boy. It’s astonishing that no one in the writer’s room (there were twelve of them in total) caught the message this sends and thought the better of it. This is what puts it over the top, beyond merely “bad” and into “fucking terrible”.
Of the 56 (so far) Disney animated features, Chicken Little is the one that you can skip and be perfectly fine missing. Don’t see this movie. It even features the worst song of the Barenaked Ladies.