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Can 'Chicken Little' Reanimate Disney?


Today we focus on your money, spending on candy and the movies.

The animated film "Chicken Little," opens next Friday. It features the voices of Zach Braff and Garry Marshall, and, for the Walt Disney Company, a great deal is riding on the back of this little chicken. NPR's Kim Masters reports.

KIM MASTERS reporting:

It's safe to say that Disney's version of "Chicken Little" is a new riff on old material. This time, for instance, the protagonist gets updated advice on his credibility problem from his best pals: The Ugly Duckling and a very big pig called Runt of the Litter.

(Soundbite of "Chicken Little")

Ms. JOAN CUSACK: (As The Ugly Duckling) Runt, should Chicken Little have a good talk with his dad and clear the air or keep searching for Band-Aid solutions and never deal with the problem?

Mr. STEVE ZAHN: (As Runt of the Litter) Band-Aid solutions?

Ms. CUSACK: (As The Ugly Duckling) Runt!

Mr. ZAHN: (As Runt of the Litter) What? I'm sorry. I'm very bad at reading facial cues.

Ms. CUSACK: (As The Ugly Duckling) Ugh!

MASTERS: "Chicken Little" may be a small bird but the movie has become a big deal. It's being seen as a test of Disney's once-vaunted animation prowess after several difficult years. David Stainton, the head of Disney Animation, says "Chicken Little," arguably the company's first homegrown computer-animated film, will be a turning point.

Mr. DAVID STAINTON (Disney Animation): We've had some fallow years and I think that this is the first movie of, you know, a whole new period for us.

MASTERS: Traditional hand-drawn films like "Brother Bear" and "Home on the Range" didn't perform well. Meanwhile, computer-generated animation took off and Disney was not in the game. It made money on a string of hits produced by its then-partners at Pixar, including "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles." But Pixar has split from Disney, and, meanwhile, other rivals came onto the field of play. DreamWorks made "Shrek" and "Madagascar." Fox produced "Ice Age" and "Robots." Jim Hill is a self-described Disney geek whose Web site tracks all things Disney. He's seen parts of "Chicken Little" and thinks it's a nice little movie but not the blockbuster that Disney needs.

Mr. JIM HILL: It's so clearly influenced by "Shrek," and, likewise, the Pixar films. It's, you know, just like now, you know, the leader is following everybody else's lead.

MASTERS: Entertainment industry analyst Harold Vogel has seen parts of the movie, too, and he thinks "Chicken Little" will be a hit.

Mr. HAROLD VOGEL (Entertainment Industry Analyst): I think the key to it is the cuteness factor of "Chicken Little." They have just made it very cute, and cute counts for a lot.

MASTERS: In fact, Vogel thinks "Chicken Little" will not just give Disney a morale boost and generate a lot of money, it will also give the company a bargaining chip as it attempts to reestablish its now ruptured relationship with Pixar.

Mr. VOGEL: ...(Unintelligible) say that, `Well, gosh, look how we did all by ourselves. We don't need Pixar quite as badly as everyone thought.'

MASTERS: Even if "Chicken Little" succeeds, Vogel believes Disney will still make a new deal with Pixar, rather than allow its former partner to link up with a competing studio. Jim Hill agrees. And he thinks Pixar can then force Disney to yield the most profitable release dates for Pixar's movies. So to him the return of Pixar would be a mixed blessing. He loves Pixar movies but he fears what will happen if the mighty Pixar returns to the Disney fold.

Mr. HILL: Disney Feature Animation is then going to have to be handicapped, and end up being, you know, the red-headed stepchild in its own house.

MASTERS: Disney Animation chief David Stainton says that's not so.

Mr. STAINTON: My mission and my mandate, you know, has been to reinvent Walt Disney Feature Animation which I feel like we are in the process of doing quite successfully. So, you know, regardless of what happens with Pixar, that's going to continue to be my mission and I happily accept it.

MASTERS: Certainly Disney fans are hoping that whether the chicken is big or little, that mission will succeed. Kim Masters, NPR news, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kim Masters
Kim Masters covers the business of entertainment for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She joined NPR in 2003.