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FALL SNEAKS | Chicken Little

Falling high in Disney's pecking order

September 11, 2005|Richard Verrier

A little chicken will carry the weight of a studio in November, when Walt Disney Co. hatches its first full-blown computer-animated feature, "Chicken Little."

Disney investors and many in the animation community will closely watch the box office performance of the comedy, which aims to put a new twist on the classic fable of a young chicken who causes widespread panic when he mistakes a falling acorn for a piece of the sky. The film, which cost about $100 million to make, is directed by Mark Dindal and stars the voices of Zach Braff and Joan Cusack.

For Disney, the movie represents an opportunity to restore some of the luster to its once-storied animation division. The unit has stumbled in recent years with such flops as "Treasure Planet" and "Home on the Range" in the face of mounting competition from rivals such as DreamWorks Animation SKG, creator of the computer-animated hit "Shrek" movies and "Madagascar."

"Chicken" was originally scheduled for release this summer, but that was pushed back to Nov. 4 to fill a holiday slot created when Pixar decided to move its next film, "Cars," to summer 2006.

"It's a competitive time slot," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, a box office tracking firm.

The film follows the release of DreamWorks' "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" and comes two weeks before Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

The pressure to succeed is all the greater because Disney's long-standing and successful partnership with Pixar Animation Studios, creator of such hits as the "Toy Story" movies, "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles," may be coming to an end.

Pixar Animation Studios last year ended talks

to extend its partnership with Disney beyond 2006,

although Disney chief executive-elect Robert Iger has renewed talks to strike a deal with Pixar chief Steve Jobs.

In the meantime, Disney has already launched a division dedicated to creating sequels to Pixar movies.

"They need to show that in the world of CGI animation, they can be successful," Dergarabedian said. "It's an important movie on several levels."

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