Chicken Little

Its relationship with Pixar on the rocks, Disney is using “Chicken Little” as an experiment to see whether it can create successful computer-animated films on its own, without the geniuses behind “Toy Story” and “The Incredibles” doing it for them.

All of this is beside the point, of course. No one cares whether a movie was hand-drawn or computer-animated. Children — and children are these films’ primary audience, though adults often love them, too — want a good story with fun characters. They couldn’t care less whether those characters were made on computers, traced from stencils, or drawn by monkeys.

But for the record, “Chicken Little” is a wonky, whacked-out, energetic comedy that fills its 77 minutes with more merriment than most films manage in 100. Does it have the heart, the depth, or the sheer genius of a Pixar film? No, not even close. It was directed by Mark Dindal, whose “Emperor’s New Groove” made me think the same thing: This is fun, but it’s not something people will still be watching in 10 years.

But it is fun! It’s set in the small town of Oakey Oaks, inhabited by anthropomorphic animals (I notice that the china shop is owned by a bull) and as quaint and peaceful as you please. One day, Chicken Little (voice of Zach Braff) was conked in the head by a piece of the sky, causing him to declare, naturally, that the sky was falling. The ensuing panic turned to anger when Chicken Little couldn’t find the piece of sky that had fallen on him, and everyone concluded it had been a false alarm.

Now, a year later, Chicken Little is still a laughingstock for his behavior that fateful fall day. “Crazy Little Chicken: The Movie” is about to be released; people already have everything from bumper stickers to commemorative plates reminding them of what a fool Chicken Little is. The kids at school, of course, tease him relentlessly. When the gym teacher announces that the game is dodgeball and everyone should “divide into two teams: popular and unpopular,” Chicken Little knows which side he belongs on.

He’s joined by Abby Mallard, aka Ugly Duckling (Joan Cusack) and Runt (Steve Zahn), an enormous pig who is, in a subversive joke that will go over the kiddies’ heads, destined for gayness when he reaches maturity. A fourth member of their group, Fish, has his head in a fishbowl and doesn’t speak in any recognizable way. Their chief tormentor is Foxy Loxy (Amy Sedaris), the head Mean Girl whose henchman is Goosy Lucy, an insane gosling who speaks only in honks.

Like 98 percent of Disney cartoon heroes, Chicken Little has only one parent, Buck (Garry Marshall), an easy-going fellow who loves his boy but who was pretty embarrassed by the whole “sky is falling” thing last year. Eager to please his dad, Chicken Little joins the school’s baseball team, hoping he’ll do something spectacular to make Dad and everyone else forget what happened.

Then one night another piece of the sky falls on Chicken Little. He realizes it’s part of an alien spaceship, and with the help of Abby, Runt and Fish, he concludes that an invasion is imminent! He must warn the town! But will they believe the boy who once cried wolf? Or is it unfair to bring the Boy Who Cried Wolf into a story about Chicken Little?

The screenplay, by the “Brother Bear” duo of Steve Bencich and Ron J. Friedman, is brimming with goofiness, much of it more silly than laugh-out-loud funny (though there are a lot of laughs, too). At its center, it’s really about the fractured relationship between Chicken Little and his dad, a very familiar father/son scenario in which both parties love each other but seldom discuss their true feelings. Why get all mushy when you could throw a baseball around instead, you know?

Zach Braff, Joan Cusack and Steve Zahn are all perfect as the trio of friends (Disney, like Pixar, has always excelled at cartoon casting). And what a treat to hear Don Knotts as Turkey Lurkey, the town’s spineless mayor! Or, late in the film, Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara as an alien couple! How about Patrick Stewart as a wooly ram who teaches Mutton class (i.e., the class where you learn to speak the language of sheep)? Or Harry Shearer, the voice of “The Simpsons'” Kent Brockman, as a Kent Brockman-like newscaster?

Does the film engage in one too many musical montages? No; it engages in at least two too many. And does it fall short of being as heartfelt as it is funny, which was always one of Pixar’s strengths? Yes, it falls short. But it IS heartfelt, and it IS funny, and it is a movie full of delights. The world still needs Pixar, but Disney might be able to survive without it.

B+ (1 hr., 17 min.; G, with nothing offensive except for several uses of the word 'pee'.)