The sky is falling, and that's just a small part of the drama in "Chicken Little" -- a movie that tests the future of animation, both for Disney and the film industry.
The age-old kiddie tale about a hysterical little chick who thinks the world is about to end has already proven to be a film of many firsts: It's Disney's first non-Pixar animated feature; it premieres with an unprecedented release in 3-D at 84 theaters across the country; and it's Zach Braff's first turn voicing an animated character.
"I never did voiceovers," said the 30-year-old "Scrubs" star. "But I can tell you they are a fun thing to do. You can show up in your sweatpants with a cup of coffee and get in the sound booth and just act really goofy, which is something I enjoy doing."
After writing, directing and starring in his last film, the acclaimed "Garden State," Braff could concentrate on his vocal performance. But that required some new skills.
"I didn't want to do just my voice because I thought that would sound weird, and too deep," he says. "We played with a bunch of different ideas, but it basically came down to trying to sound like a little boy."
"Chicken Little's" release comes as Disney's relationship with Pixar is set to expire, following the release next June of "Cars." After a string of blockbusters -- including "Toy Story," "Monsters, Inc.," "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles" -- it's unclear whether Disney [which is the corporate owner of ABC News] will continue to distribute the animation studio's films. The measure of success of this little chick might affect negotiations.
While Disney pioneered computer animation more than two decades ago, the studio's roots had long been in traditional hand-drawn cartooning. Walt Disney, after all, built his empire on Mickey Mouse cartoons, and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in 1937 marked the beginning of animated feature films.
"At the start of 'Chicken Little,' only about 50 percent of our animation team had worked in the CG medium," says animation supervisor Eamonn Butler, who supervised an 18-month training program in California to break new ground in computer animation and 3-D technology.
""We had classes and labs in Burbank and Glendale that ran almost 24 hours a day," says Butler. "People could come in 24 hours a day … It was a massive undertaking. More training than we've ever done at this studio."
Will 3-D Quell Box Office Blues?
Last Christmas, Warner Bros' "The Polar Express" (which was released in both 2-D and 3-D versions) proved that audiences were willing to pay a little more to experience a new release in IMAX 3-D. In recent years, 3-D films such as "The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl" have been released in traditional multiplex theaters, with varying results.
In a time when the box office has been lagging, studios are racing for ideas to pry audiences away from DVDs and give them a viewing experience they can't enjoy at home. That's why Disney is going to extremes to make "Chicken Little's" national 3-D release a success. To help the theaters, Disney is assigning one engineer to each 3-D screen this weekend. The studio has also deployed 84 state-of-the-art REAL D projection systems.
Perhaps it's fitting that the name "Chicken Little" has always been synonymous with underdogs. After the success of Disney's Pixar hits, and such mega-grossing films as "Shrek," "Shark Tale" and this summer's "Madagascar," the bar is set pretty high for animated features. Disney's last entry, "Valiant," starring Ewan McGregor and Ricky Gervais, grossed a disappointing $40 million.
But when moviegoers strap on their 3-D glasses for this film, they'll be transported to Oakey Oaks, where chickens ride in egg-shaped cars, a bull runs the local china shop, sheep are barbers, and worms sell books.
"The movie picks up as Chicken Little has already said the sky is falling and embarrassed himself, and now he finds out they are making a movie of his life and he's humiliated," Braff says. "So, now, he's trying to redeem himself before the movie comes out and embarrasses him."
Stars seem to be tripping over each other to voice cartoon characters. Just as Martin Scorsese slept with the fishes in "Shark Tale," another prominent director, Garry Marshall, is now getting plucky as Chicken Little's rooster of a dad. Joan Cusack plays some chick named Abby Mallard, and Steve Zahn hams it up as a 900-pound porker.
Amy Sedaris, Don Knotts, Harry Shearer and Adam West also pop up in this barnyard as a schoolyard fox, a political turkey, a tail-wagging sports announcer and Chicken Little's Hollywood alter-ego.