Screenplay : Karey Kirkpatrick (story by Peter Lord & Nick Park)
MPAA Rating : G
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Mel Gibson (Rocky the Rooster), Miranda Richardson (Mrs. Tweedy), Tony Haygarth (Mr. Tweedy), Julia Sawalha (Ginger), Jane Horrocks (Babs)
There is just something about chickens that makes them inherently humorous. Perhaps it is the way they walk, or the absurd manner in which they hold themselves. Perhaps their shape--that large, round, feathered body supported on tiny stick legs--just makes them look ridiculous. After all, why else would Gary Larson have used so many chicken jokes in his "Far Side" cartoons?
"Chicken Run," a British claymation comedy about a group of determined chickens trying to escape the farm on which they are held captive, plays on chicken humor in a number of unique ways. Chickens, of course, are generally seen as cowardly--hence, the use of the terms "chicken" or "chicken-hearted" to label those who are timid or afraid.
The chickens in "Chicken Run," however are not so easily labeled. Yes, many of them are quite timid, but not Ginger (Julia Sawalha), a determined, saucy hen who will escape the farm at any cost. The opening credit sequence is a hilarious montage of all her failed escape attempts, each of which ends with her being put in solitary confinement in a coal bin by the farmer, Mr. Tweedy (Tony Haygarth).
One night, salvation seems to fall out of the sky in the form of Rocky (Mel Gibson), a smooth-talking, confident American rooster who is escaping the circus. Ginger thinks that Rocky knows how to fly, so she convinces him to teach all the other chickens how to fly, as well. What better way to escape the Tweedy farm than to simply fly over the fence to freedom?
Unfortunately, Mr. Tweedy's stern, scowling wife, Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson), has other plans. She is sick of making minimal profits by harvesting chicken eggs. So, she invests in a ridiculously enormous machine that turns chickens into chicken pot pies. Thus, Ginger's bid for escape changes from a simple desire for freedom away from pecking and laying eggs all day to a life-and-death situation.
"Chicken Run" comes from the minds of Nick Park, creator of the "Wallace and Gromit" animated shorts, two of which have won Academy Awards, and Peter Lord, who is also a successful short animation director. It has a deft, English sensibility, and much of the humor trades on British stereotypes, such as Babs (Jane Horrocks), a dingy chicken who is always knitting and asking inane questions, and Fowler (Benjamin Whitrow), an old, gruff, and often befuddled rooster who is constantly clearing his throat and going on about how things were in his military days. He, of course, is especially suspicious of Rocky's ability to fly, mostly because Rocky is a "Yank." "Americans, always showing up late for a war," he complains.
Feature length claymation films are rare these days, and for obvious reasons. "Chicken Run" took many years to make, with dozens of artists toiling to turn out only seconds of footage each month. This is not an easy or efficient manner in which to make a film. Yet, in the end it is worth it because the film is visually unique. The characters very much resemble the artistry of "Wallace and Gromit," with their perfectly round eyes always bugging out a little too much and their slightly downturned mouths filled with rows of perfectly straight, square white teeth. The film has some startling imagery, some of which is a bit harrowing. That the chicken farm, with its ordered rows of chicken coops and fence topped with barbed wire that is constantly patrolled by Mr. Tweedy and a pair of vicious dogs, bears an unsettling resemblance to a concentration camp is something not easily ignored.
But, "Chicken Run" is mostly good, lighthearted entertainment with more than its share of bad chicken puns ("Look, poultry in motion," says a character while watching the hapless hens attempting to learn how to fly). It takes a while to get going, but the big climax with the chickens flying their own plane is a feat of animated genius. Mel Gibson's smooth, familiar voice is perfectly suited to his cocky character, and it contrasts well with all the English accents that surround him. If "Chicken Run" is not, ultimately, a masterpiece of storytelling, it is certainly imaginative and fun.
©2000 James Kendrick