"Any movie about chickens," my wife said positively, "can’t be all bad."
My wife raises chickens. That may mean she is less than completely unbiased; but in Chicken Run, a feature-length claymation tour de force about a flock of hens determined to escape from the Tweedy poultry farm, she has a film that more than supports her assertion, a film that is pure magic, one that will entertain and delight children and adults alike.
Real chickens, I have it on expert testimony, are homebodies who do not actually pine for freedom, as do the heroines of Chicken Run. Whereas these poultry-farm prisoners plot and scheme endlessly to contrive by any means necessary to get under, over, or around their chicken-wire prison wall, my wife’s hens actually perch atop the five-foot fence that surrounds our back yard. They are quite capable of escaping, but have no interest in doing so.
But Chicken Run is not really about chickens. Its creators, claymation masters Nick Park (creator of the Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit shorts The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave) and Peter Lord, have described their protagonists as "people in chicken suits." By this they meant that, having studied actual chickens in an effort to glean some inspiration for their animated characters, they ultimately concluded that real chickens had too many peculiar mannerisms (such as bobbing their heads as they walk) that wouldn’t work well with their medium, and so abandoned any pretense of naturalism, animating the chickens essentially as they would any other characters. But it is equally true that the anthropomorphic birds of Chicken Run are human in more ways than one — indeed, they are much more human than many characters portrayed by flesh-and-blood actors in many live-action films.
In any case, these chickens have a very human longing for freedom, and human beings in the audience will find themselves caught up in the chickens’ quest. In fact, the whole structure of the film is drawn from classic World War II prison pictures such as Stalag 17 and The Great Escape; just as the Wallace and Gromit shorts drew on thriller-movie conventions, and indeed as other animated films from The Lion King to A Bug’s Life have traditional structures taken from earlier films.
Yet whereas The Lion King was content to allow its coming-of-age formula to proceed virtually on autopilot, and even the superior A Bug’s Life had slow stretches, Chicken Run finds a way to add extra wit and interest to virtually every scene. It may not maintain quite the same frantic level of invention as the Wallace and Gromit shorts — perhaps no feature-length film could — but it has more heart, and the result is a vastly entertaining and engaging story that at 85 minutes isn’t a second too long.
The same bizarre brilliance that informed Wallace’s gizmos and gadgets is at work in the trapdoors and sliding panels the hens use to protect the secrets of their plans for escape, and also in a thrilling sequence that takes us into a diabolical device purchased by Mrs. Tweedy; a sequence that plays like a deathtrap scene from a James Bond or Indiana Jones movie. The same endearing British eccentricities are in evidence, and the characters — and are they characters — are engagingly and observantly drawn.
Mel Gibson adds star power as Rocky the Flying Rooster, a circus escapee who regalvanizes the hens’ escape-plan movement when he agrees to teach them fly in exchange for their hiding him from his show-business pursuers. (The marketing campaign has naturally played up his involvement, showing the hens swooning over Rocky and all offering to share their roosts with him. This moment of innuendo is both isolated and fleeting.)
The real hero, though, is Ginger (Julia Sawalha from the British sitcom "Absolutely Fabulous"), a visionary hen (I will not stoop, as have so many other reviewers, to calling her "plucky") who is determined not only to escape herself from the Tweedy farm but to take the entire flock with her.
The first-ever full-length claymation feature from Nick Park and Peter Lord — and the first full-length stop-motion feature film from anyone since Tim Burton brought us The Nightmare Before Christmas — Chicken Run is a wonder to behold. Because stop-motion involves real objects in real space with real surfaces under real lighting, it has a dimensionality and a solidness to it that is still lacking in even the most sophisticated Toy Story-type computer animation. Yet, like all animation, it has the same freedom from physical constraints. It doesn’t even rely on traditional special-effects magic. The film is not shot in real time, but is shot one frame at a time while the animators make minute adjustments to their articulated models, creating no more than a few seconds of film for each day of filming. The result of this painstakingly laborious two-year effort is a soaring flight of unfettered imagination. It is a noble thing to unfetter the imagination. Chicken Run has this nobility.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.