Watching the new computer-animated Disney feature Chicken Little, the studio's first entirely-computer-animated production, surrounded by a few dozen mostly silent children and their parents, I began to drift off.
I imagined I was in a room.
That room was in a studio.
That studio was populated by many executives, screenwriters, animators, and lots of marketing people and their assistants. The main guy, I think some president of production, is sitting behind a blonde-wood desk fiddling with his iPod. Eventually he looks up and notices the group in his office and asks "OK, what's next?"
Tentative looks all around.
The screenwriter peeps up.
"The Chicken Little story."
"Tell me more."
"Well, the sky actually falls."
"Wait, I want it like Shrek."
"Oh, it is, it is. But special effects can do so much now. Computer animation can make the sky actually fall. Here it will fall in blocks and bonk Chicken Little on the head. The first time it causes chaos and when the town finds out that the sky is intact, after they send up a team of scientists to make sure, the ensuing shame alienates Chicken Little and his dad, Buck Cluck, from the rest of the town. But then, the sky falls again, and Chicken Little keeps one of the blocks, which turns out to be part of a camouflaged alien spacecraft hovering over the town and plotting a takeover. But, of course, by that point no one believes Chicken Little's sky-falling story, and so he has to prove himself."
"Lose the scientists."
"And I see Chicken Little outrunning a very large boulder, like Indiana Jones did - wait, make the boulder go through a theater showing Raiders of the Lost Ark, in case a few people don't get it."
"It's in. I love it."
"Good, but what about the rest of the pop-culture references? Where's the edge? I told you there would need to be pop culture references and edge. Shrek had pop culture references and edge. Do I need to remind you Disney hasn't had an animated smash in four or five years? The sky is falling right here, people."
"Back at the dawn of man, Walt himself might have had the time for original thought and innovative design. But we don't. I don't need to remind you after Pixar turns in their next film, our distribution deal with Steve Job's cash cow is complete, finished, over. And when that happens, will Disney still be able to claim it is the home of quality animation? Doubtful. And I don't want to be here when Mickey drops dead."
"Noted, and, you'll be happy to learn, acted on. There is not a thing that is innovative or remotely original about Chicken Little. Conventional all around. Nothing to alienate anyone. In fact, let's just call it Finding Nemo Meets War of the Worlds and Everyone Goes Out To See Shrek. This thing will taste like chicken, if you get what I mean."
"Lots, plus a Mickey watch."
"The pop references?"
"Madison, the references?"
His assistant opens a folder.
"King Kong, The Lion King. Star Wars, Lilo & Stitch. The acorn that hits Chicken Little, sort of, is from Ice Age. And his fish friend who speaks in unintelligible gurgles, very reminiscent of Kenny from South Park."
The screenwriter sits back.
The exec paws his goatee, trying to think of what they left out.
"The animation?" he asks.
"Cute but not too cute, expensive but not overly expensive."
"Good. What about heart?"
"It has no heart."
"Turkey Lurky, Foxy Loxy, Goosey Loosey. Runt of the Litter, and Morkubine Porcupine."
"Not bad. But if it doesn't have celebrity voices, it doesn't work."
"Correct. So we landed Zach Braff from Garden State. He's Chicken Little. Then there's Garry Marshall, Amy Sedaris, Joan Cusack, Steve Zahn, Don Knotts, Harry Shearer, and Adam West."
"Looney Tunes frantic. There's not a moment of calm in sight."
"Conversations about 'closure' and understanding your child."
"Great, kids love psychology."
"Also every couple of scenes there will be a song, a pop song. None of that original-score stuff anymore. We got the Bakenaked Ladies to write something new. It's nothing special but it sounds like a Shrek song. The others are older, just like Shrek, only more obvious. For the scene when the aliens land, we use 'It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)' just so you know exactly what you are supposed to be thinking, in case you don't know. Plus, there's lots of disco."
"How does it end?"
"This is the coolest part. After Chicken Little saves the world, we show the movie version of his life, except it's this huge animated movie that looks great and feels derivative because it was obviously made by a committee of screenwriters and executives and marketing people and assistants. It's self-referential but we stop short of naming ourselves."
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org