Chicken Little pictureAfter hearing Josh Greer, a 3D guru, speak at the HD Expo about the new 3D system being rolled out for Disney’s Chicken Little, I quickly reserved some tickets at the Loew’s Citywalk for Satuday afternoon. The buzz was that Chicken Little was a lame movie. But it couldn’t be lamer than Polar Express — and I saw that too, just for the 3D. Surprisingly, Chicken Little turned out to be mildly better than what I expected and Disney 3D, slightly worse.

Read more about Chicken Little (no spoilers), and my opinions on Disney Digital 3D technology…My girlfriend hated both, so that certainly is coloring my opinion now. But my gut reactions while watching the movie were as follows. Coming into the theater, I was surprised at how small it was. I would estimate it had only 120 seats. I reasoned that they installed in a narrow theater because 3D effects are lessened on the extreme sides. I don’t have any proof of that.

The lights went out and everyone put on their glasses. Then a screen came up telling everyone to take off their glasses for the previews. The audience groaned in unison. You would think some enterprising Disney marketers could’ve put together one or two 3D teasers. Or James Cameron could’ve put one together for Battle Angel. In any case, the previews used the standard digital projector built in to the 3D projector, and they looked great. They were crisp and notably vibrant, perhaps attributable to the special reflective screen that was installed for 3D projection.

Finally, it was time to put on the glasses. The movie began without any gimmick effect, which was nice. During the first few dramatic 3D effects, all the kids in the audience could be seen reaching up their hands to try to grab things on screen. I love it! Already, it seemed the technology worked. It brought magic to the movies.

The picture was noticably brighter and crisper than IMAX 3D, and had a greater sense of depth, although it was less immersive due to the tiny screen. IMAX theaters also have great sound systems. I don’t know if the sound system installed in Loews Citywalk theater 11 is anything special, but it had the IMAX sound system beat. Perhaps because this new technology is being watched so closely (Disney reps were on hand, handing out surveys and polling people after the movie), someone who actually knows about theater sound had tweaked the theater to its optimum.

But back to the 3D picture. I said I was slightly disappointed by it, and here’s why. Supposedly, it runs at 144 frames per second, half for each eye. With that kind of frame rate, motion should look very smooth. Instead, any time characters or the camera moved fast, it looked strobe-y. This may be a case of how the animation was rendered (sans adequate motion blur) or even how the movie was “dimensionalized”. I hear that they actually hand-convert a 2D print, at least for live action. That makes no sense to me when you’re talking about 3D animation. You can have two cameras recording left-eye, right-eye images and get perfect 3D — that is, a ball would look curved, rather than like a flat, circular plane. (I’ve mused before that it would be easy enough to convert Toy Story or Shrek to 3D by going back to the original file and rendering another camera that is slightly spaced from the orginal.) Strobiness, also, may contribute the motion sickness and headaches some will experience.

On most levels, the 3D looked very good. You could see, for example, texture in the bricks on the bell tower. But any time the background or foreground was blurred, it appeared as a flat blob. Depth of field has to be a tricky issue with 3D. It seems to me that you’re better off with a focus to infinity on most shots, allowing the audience use the lenses in their eyes to decide what to focus on. If Chicken Little didn’t have to be released in standard 2D, (and hadn’t been changed to 3D at the last minute) this might not have been an issue.

I’m going to remain agnostic on the technology until I see what James Cameron and other clever folk are able to do with it. It is yet in its infancy. I think there will be systems that will let you space the recording lenses a great distance apart to create surrealistic depth effects. I think also filmmakers will save the moments where objects from the screen scrape the noses of the audience for times when a great dramatic effect is needed, instead of just using it for gimmick effects. If I were filming a 3D movie, my climax would be a pair of extreme close-ups on the faces of the hero and the villain. The close-up, I think, will remain the most powerful shot in the director’s arsenal. Action movies will be able to use p.o.v. shots much more effectively (c.f. Doom) because we get a sense of the depth of a darkened hallway, or the cliff that the hero is standing on. It’s a whole new world, and it’s been a long time comin’.

UPDATE: Post Magazine has the most informative article I’ve yet seen on Disney Digital 3D. It was done in 6 weeks by ILM, and yes, they did cheat depth.

As for Chicken Little
The movie has a hurtling momentum until the first long dialogue scene in the dodgeball game. The characters are fun and so is the world that the animators have created. I’ve been especially intrigued by the hexagonal-piece-of-sky design. A very cool idea for what a piece of the sky might look like. I think anyone who appreciates the artistry of animation, and who likes paying attention to the background action in Jaques Tati movies, will have great fun with Chicken Little. Certainly, that the movie turns into a parody of alien invasion movies is what it is, and will put off some.

The story of Chicken Little that we all know is more of a parable than a feature film. They had to expand it in some way. The tepid stew of writers (written by Steven Bencich and Ron Friedman, with — and this is a credit I’ve never before seen — additional story material by Robert L. Baird and Dan Gerson) chose a rather obvious plot direction (except for the baseball subplot, which is a genuine failure of imagination), but they get in some decent riffs. Trying to re-bottle the magic of Finding Nemo, the father-son dynamic between Chicken Little and his father is aimed at bowing our heartstrings. It doesn’t come across as genuine, and it bogs the movie way down. The obsession over “closure” will resonate, I think, only with the Dr. Phil crowd.

The pop music interludes were another case of trying to re-bottle magic, this time Shrek‘s. I could’ve done without them. Still, every time a character burst into song or began dancing, the kids in the audience went nuts. It seems there are a few people left at Disney who know what kids like, even if they can’t always make it palatable to adults. The movie works wonderfully for kids, who left the theater bouncing and singing. Just like another critically-panned 3D movie, Madagascar, Chicken Little is destined to make bank. So I think Disney executives can relax, despite what Variety’s Todd McCarthy sayeth:

Under-nourishing and highly derivative fast-food item probably will ring up less B.O. than most of the high-flying animated features of recent holiday seasons.

UPDATE: Now that I’ve written my review, I’ve sampled what the critics have to say. Chicken Little currently rates a 39% on the Tomatometer. That’s rotten, but not too rotten. My nemesis A.O. Scott said “a hectic, uninspired pastiche of catchphrases and clichés, with very little wit, inspiration or originality to bring its frantically moving images to genuine life,” which is what is called a hachet-job, and way over the top. Ebert puts it in greater perspective:

The problem, I think, lies with the story. As a general rule, if a movie is not about baseball or space aliens, and you have to use them, anyway, you should have started with a better premise.

The movie did make me smile. It didn’t make me laugh, and it didn’t involve my emotions, or the higher regions of my intellect, for that matter. It’s a perfectly acceptable feature cartoon for kids up to a certain age, but it doesn’t have the universal appeal of some of the best recent animation.

Now if only a critic had bothered to see it in 3D, I could compare notes. Anyone else have opinions on Disney 3D out there?