Walt Disney Pictures was looking for an entry point into non-Pixar CGI animation. Zach Braff was searching for an opportunity to create something lasting. Together they found a cinematic treat with a decidedly different flavor, by deciding to go with a project that tasted like chicken.
"[Voice-over cartoons] last for so long. They're timeless," Braff remembered of his thoughts going into "Chicken Little," his first foray in the genre. "I love the idea that one day I'll have kids and be able to show them the movie and the plush toy."
Braff had a dream, and it may never have been fulfilled if not for the terrifying assignment given several years ago to producer Randy Fullmer and his filmmaking team. Disney was hoping to assert its independence from partner Pixar (maker of hits like the "Toy Story" films) while simultaneously moving away from the traditional animation that had resulted in instantly outdated bombs like "Treasure Planet." Fullmer's project was to be a major stepping stone in Disney animation, a project that would either define the future of the storied company or send it into panic mode. Seeking an idea, they combed through the studio's enormous vaults.
"We said, 'Oh, Disney owns the rights to Chicken Little?' " recalled Fullmer, who, along with director Mark Dindal, stumbled upon the 1943 film of the same name. "[That's when] that light bulb went on in our heads." The eight-minute short was produced by Uncle Walt as a WWII propaganda film that warned about the dangers of anti-American sentiment. Sure, the source material was outdated, but the characters weren't.
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While Fullmer observed hidden messages like "Don't panic and don't gossip" buried within the original chicken tale, he saw a key personality like Cinderella or Alice in Wonderland that had been invented elsewhere but could be branded with the Disney stamp. The next step was to take something classic and infuse it with the type of attitude that audiences expected from CGI cartoon blockbusters like "The Incredibles" or the "Shrek" films.
"I really got to put into it [my] own humor," Braff said of the trademark sarcasm and pop-culture awareness that made his character on TV's "Scrubs" such a breakout. "Mark was really into that."
"He came in for an audition along with, like, 40 other people, but the moment we heard him, he was just so right-on," Dindal said. "He pitched his voice slightly to sound like a junior high kid. Right there, that was really unique — and then he had such great energy."
Once Braff was cast, supervising animator Jason Ryan set out to create a visual that would combine the dorkiness and adorability Disney desired with the natural charms of Braff's facial features. "He's got this really appealing face and eye expressions," Ryan said, adding that he was amazed by Braff's natural vocal skills. "There's a part in the film where he thanks his lucky stars, and Zach did such a great job. He actually put in the breath, and that breath is just pure gold for an animator, because now we can actually make the character breathe and say the words. It really feels like the character's breathing now on the screen."
Dindal and Fullmer made the unusual decision to put two of their voice actors in the same room after witnessing the natural banter that emerged whenever Braff came into contact with Hollywood veteran Garry Marshall, who had been cast as the tiny chicken's skeptical father. "We just got along," Marshall said of Braff. "We're both graduates of Northwestern University, and I had lectured once and met him [as a student]; he'd been a part of the school's directing program and acting program, so we had some background."
"Most animation, you're not in the same room, you do it alone," Marshall said. "I think they were feeling that the picture had so much pizzazz, so much brilliant animation, and they had such hip comedy that they felt, 'We wanna make sure that the core story underneath works, so we'll do something special with it.' That's why they put us in the same room."
Once the movie was finished, the filmmakers again decided to go in an unexpected direction, creating a limited number of 3D prints utilizing cutting-edge technology that "Star Wars" director George Lucas has recently touted. "I don't know [how it works]; I just know that it is Industrial Light & Magic, and they are doing this new technique," Braff said. "They take the 3D elements, and because they're already there, they adjust one of the cameras so it's slightly askew. Somehow, if a movie is already [CGI] animation, they can then make it a 3D movie relatively simply by doing something within the world they've created."
It all comes together in a family-friendly romp that takes the Chicken Little details we remember (chicken thinks sky is falling, sounds false alarm, faces mockery) and turns them into a subversive, clever commentary on everything from the perils of ill-gotten fame to the joys of being an outsider.
"It has a really smart, irreverent look at celebrity and making fun of people who get famous for really odd things," Braff said. "There's a lot of stuff kids aren't gonna get, like an episode of 'The Simpsons.'
"I mean, I laughed out loud a whole bunch of times," he continued. "And I knew the script, so I was really surprised at how funny it came out."
Asked to give his sales pitch, the 30-year-old scruffy-haired star offered a predictably unpredictable plot synopsis: "It's about a chicken, and you'll laugh, and you'll cry, and you'll root for the chicken. It'll make you want to eat feed. It's like 'Garden State,' but about a farm."
"He would [say that], wouldn't he?" Dindal chuckled when told about Braff's comparison. " 'It's "Garden State" on a spaceship.' Everything is 'Garden State' to that guy."
The sky may have been falling in on Disney a few years ago, but fortunately for the fun-loving personalities behind "Little," the only one who turned chicken was Zach Braff.
For more on "Chicken Little," check out the feature "Zach Braff's Big 'Little' Role."
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