Sunday, January 15, 2006

Chicken Little (1943)

Chicken Little (Walt Disney, 1943)
Dir: Clyde Geronimi
Cel Bloc Rating: 8/9

Isn't a film telling you not to believe any propaganda that you read or hear also to be considered propaganda? Especially if the studio that is producing the film is doing so at the insistence of the government? Wouldn't the film negate its own intentions by its very existence?

In 1943, Walt Disney Productions took its first crack at the story of Chicken Little, the classic sky-is-falling folderol that kids are regaled with time and again throughout their childhood days. My problem with Chicken Little is that, like many of the fairy tales and fables out there, there are multiple endings to the story, depending on which happy ending brigade, whiny parents' group, or censorship squad has gotten hold of the story and changed it to suit their needs or make it "safer" for their children's sensitive little brains to absorb. The version I prefer is the one where Foxy Loxy says he knows the path to the king's palace, the birds believe him, and then the clever fox eats all of the idiot poultry who fall for this line. There is another version for the babies where the king's men come to the rescue just in the nick of time and kill or chase off the fox. (No one ever mentions that the king's men will probably eat Chicken Little when he/she is not so little anymore, along with all of his/her pals.) There are other endings to the story, and since the origin of the story is unclear, it is hard to say how it was originally written. However the story ends, Chicken Little believes that the sky is falling because an acorn hits the dumb cluck in the head, Chicken Little tells one bird, and then another, and then another, until all of the birds in the vicinity blindly follow Chicken Little to either their doom, or to their near-doom, depending on which version your parents or preschool deem acceptable for you to hear.

The problem with the multiple endings is that there is only one that makes any frickin' sense, and that is the "downer" ending. (From Foxy's point of view, that's the happy one.) If Chicken Little doesn't get eaten, along with the gossipmongers who never think twice about the jive the tiny little squab is handing them, then there is no lesson for the child to learn. If Little and Co. merely have a close encounter with death, kids will likely learn and believe that they can get away with anything, no matter how foolish, because they will always be rescued at the last moment. Chicken Little, much like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, has to die. Sorry, but them's the breaks.

The usually happy-ending mad Disney knew this in 1943. The company forgot it when needed in other retellings of classic fairy tales, but in their first version of Chicken Little, they got it right. Here, the barnyard seems to take on the appearance of a small town, with Cocky Locky as the mayor, and with the various other poultry representing various small cliques within the town: the turkeys stand in for the upper-crust "smart set" complaining about the ills of society (I think they are cast somewhat ironically); the hens spend all day knitting, playing bridge, gossiping non-stop, and sitting at the beauty salon getting a "red henna rinse" (har!); and Goosey Poosey and Ducky Lucky hang out at the local tavern (the water trough) and get sloshed with the other game ducks and geese. Outside of these cliques, Chicken Little is a yo-yo wielding numbskull who often conks himself in the face and head with his errantly-slung toy missile. (My favorite part, outside of the ending, is when he first delivers his horrible news to the hens, but before he can begin, the yo-yo slings back into his face... and it doesn't slow him down one iota.)

Into this serene little barnyard comes the wandering eye (literally, appearing in succeeding holes in the fence surrounding the "town") of one Foxy Loxy, who reads psychology books in order to find the best way to mislead the masses, and then lead them into his stomach. (Any resemblance in the fox's behavior to any fascistic or social organizations at large in the early 40's is purely intentional.) He sizes up Little as the weak point in the town's social structure and begins to work on him, beginning with snapping a star off of a nearby astrology sign and dropping the blue-painted wooden hunk onto the dope's noggin. To be sure, he also has to tell the dazed chick that the sky is falling. (You can never be too precise when you are starving for a chicken dinner.) Little tells the entire town, but Cocky Locky sees through the nonsense, and calms everyone down.

The fox then begins to spread rumors through the various social groups that Cocky Locky has a) lost his marbles, b) become a "totalitarian" and wants to be dictator, and c) "been hitting the mash." The rumors about Cocky fly throughout the barnyard, and the birds lose confidence in him. Foxy then sets up a puppet regime by convincing Chicken Little that only he is fit to lead the birds from the terror that is sure to fall from the sky. Chicken Little brings all of the resident poultry to the fox's cave, which the fox stealthily helps them locate, in order to hide from the falling menace. The fox runs in after them, sealing the entrance behind him, also putting up a sign outside that reads "In To Lunch." The narrator assures us that this will all end happily. But when the camera moves inside the cave, the fox is finishing the last bird, and there is a graveyard nearby marked with the wishbones of each bird. The narrator protests to the fox, telling him that this is not the way the story ends in the narrator's book. The fox, with cigar and Psychology book in hand, responds snarkily, "Oh, yeah! Don't believe everything you read, brudder!"

This is a nine-minute near-masterpiece of propaganda about propaganda. It is also one of the darkest films to ever come out of the House of Mouse. It makes its point, and almost doubly so, because you do not expect this sort of ending from Walt Disney. Beginnings, yes... but endings, no. I actually did a double take the first time I saw this film, for I swore that it had to be the product of the Warner Bros. wartime department. That's not to say that Walt couldn't bring you down when he wanted (look at Bambi and Old Yeller), but generally death in Disney (except in the villain's case) meant eventual resurrection (in just about half or more of the animated features that they made). I have to think that his normal modus operandi went out the door when the wartime stakes got bigger and more intense (as it clearly was in 1943).

I have yet to see the new Disney version of Chicken Little, thus I will refuse to compare it to this version, nor shall I critique it until I have seen it. I will, however, state that I am 100% sure that Chicken Little and the rest of the town of barnyard critters do not get eaten in it, neither by Foxy Loxy nor by the aliens that are said to be the invading villains of the film. And that's just fine, because I just recently acquired a new book on psychology. It is very heavy and thick and full of big words, and once I have read it cover to cover, I'm going to be awfully hungry...

[Editor's note: The text and photos for this article were updated on 11/3/2015.]

1 comment:

David Gerstein said...

Hi again.

The ending to this review is absolutely priceless! I hope Disney's CGI Chicken Little and his pals made a delicious meal. Thanks for another thoughtful piece of work.
On another note: am I missing something, or is it difficult to search your older reviews? One must click from one review to the next without there being a master list of all reviews (unless I've missed one). Want to consider adding it?

Best, David