Dir: Mark Dindal. US. 2005. 80mins.

For its first fully computer-animated feature, WaltDisney has turned the fable of ChickenLittle into a warm and funny comedy-adventure with an appealing energy, atouching thread of family drama and a surprising dose of War Of The Worlds-style sci-fi. After thedisappointment of some of Disney's recent traditionally animated movies, thismuch-anticipated CG debut should give studio investors and animators cause foroptimism and keep rival animation operations on their toes.

Audience response willalmost certainly be enthusiastic enough to give the studio its biggest animatedhit since 2002's Lilo & Stitch, though it remains to beseen whether Chicken Little can soarto the box-office heights reached by the Disney-distributed PixarCG films.

Originally set for a summerUS release, the film was moved to this coming weekend in the US when Disney'snext (and last, if the companies can't agree on a new distribution deal) Pixar feature, Cars,was moved to a summer 2006 slot. The autumn slot pits Chicken Little againstsome tricky opposition - including the Wallace& Gromit movie and the new Harry Potter - but gives Disney a run-upto the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday periods.

The film is being presentedin around 85 US cinemas in Disney Digital 3D, a new trademarked 3D systemdeveloped by the studio (though not used at the press screening from which thisreview was written).

Buena Vista will open thefilm in some international markets before Christmas and in others in the NewYear. Either way, the universality of the original fable and the possibilitiesoffered by local re-voicing should lead to impressive takes and an overallinternational gross even bigger than that garnered in the US.

The tale begins with ajoking reference to The Lion King andthere's a trace of that film's father-son story thread in the way Chicken Little, written by Ron Andersonand the Brother Bear team of Steve Bencich and Ron J Friedman, spins out the old fable aboutthe chicken who thought the sky was falling.

In this version, it's been ayear since Chicken Little (Braff), a downtrodden butfeisty (and, in this story, male) high-schooler,embarrassed his dad Buck Cluck (Marshall) by raising a false alarm of impendingdoom in the animal-inhabited town of Oakey Oaks.

Egged on by his friends RuntOf The Litter (Zahn), AbbyMallard (aka Ugly Duckling - Cusack)and Fish Out Of Water, Chicken Little regains his dad's affections through afluke success on the baseball field. But things go awry again when he has toalert Dad and the townsfolk to a real threat from the sky, this one frominvisible UFOs.

After a slowishstart, director Mark Dindal (The Emperor's New Groove) picks up thepace with the enjoyably cartoonish baseball gamesequence and keeps it brisk through a last half-hour that echoes ET and Close Encounters as well as summer smash War Of The Worlds.

At first, the sci-fi action,even though it quite soon becomes sci-fi comedy, seems like a very odd fit withthe fairytale world of Oakey Oaks. But Dindal manages to pull off the transition and the sci-fielements - especially the fluffy, three-eyed aliens - show off the capabilitiesof computer animation very nicely.

The CG work is mostimpressive, though, when it's being used to create appealing and expressivecharacters. With his fluffy down and nerdy specs, Chicken Little himself is extremely cute, and many of thesupporting characters - notably the large but dainty pig Runt and thenon-verbal Fish - are fun too.

In classic animationtradition, there's a constant balance between drama -Chicken Little's problems with his dad appear to havestarted after his mum's death, though the film never makes Mum's fate explicit- and comedy. The comedy isn't uproarious but it is lively and inventive, witha number of nice movie references and some clever bits of background business.

The US version of the filmboasts some excellent and sensitive voice performances. Zach Braff (from GardenState and TV's Scrubs) does aterrific job with the title character and veteran writer-director-actor GaryMarshall helps make Buck Cluck a very warm, expressive presence. Joan Cusack goes to town as Chicken Little'ssupportive pal - and would-be girlfriend - Abby.

Less successful is thefilm's use of a handful of pop songs, most from the 1970s and later, onewritten and performed for the film by the group BarenakedLadies. Several of the songs are played almost in full against dialogue-freesequences. But while they may have been intended to give parents an extra bitof entertainment, they also interrupt the film's flow without adding much toits story or feel.

Production company
Walt Disney Pictures

US distribution
Buena Vista

International distribution

Randy Fullmer

Steve Bencich & Ron J Friedman
Ron Anderson

Dan Molina

Production design
David Womersley

John Debney

Associate producer
Peter Del Vecho

Main cast (voices)
Zach Braff
Gary Marshall
Joan Cusack
Steve Zahn
Amy Sedaris
Don Knotts
Harry Shearer
Patrick Stewart
Wallace Shawn
Fred Willard
Catherine O'Hara
Adam West
Patrick Warburton