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Chicken Run   A

DreamWorks Pictures / Aardman Features

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: G
Directors: Peter Lord, Nick Park
Writer: Karey Kirkpatrick
Cast: Mel Gibson, Miranda Richardson, Tony Haygarth, Julia Sawalha, Jane Horrocks.

Review by Rob Vaux

Chicken Run, the first feature film from the creators of Wallace & Gromit, is such a delightful, charming film that one hesitates to isolate any one element. Directors Nick Park and Peter Lord started things right by applying a fundamental constant in the annals of comedy -- chickens are really silly animals -- to the time-honored genre of WWII escape films. They added the understated wit of Karey Kirkpatrick's script, a gaggle of terrific characters, and a group of acting voices perfectly suited to the material, and produced not only the best movie of the summer so far, but a brilliant successor to their series of Oscar-winning shorts.

Somewhere in the blackest pits of Yorkshire sits Tweedy's Farm, an unholy gaol from the Ninth Circle of barnyard hell. Under the ruthless gaze of Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson), hens must produce a certain amount eggs per day or be sent off to the chopping block. But while some chickens, like the spacey Babs (Jane Horrocks), don't realize their peril, others like the resourceful Ginger (Julie Sawalha) aren't about to roll over. Ginger organizes her fellow cluckers into an elite break-out team and launches a series of hysterical escape attempts -- each one more cock-eyed than the last. Things are looking grim when a jaunty American rooster named Rocky (Mel Gibson) drops in, apparently holding the wondrous secret of flight. After much pestering from Ginger, Rocky agrees to teach the desperate hens how to fly in a final bid for freedom. Just in time, too. Tiring of the "marginal profits" of egg-laying, Mrs. Tweedy has decided to start producing chicken pot pies... and ordered a fiendish machine to do the job properly.

You can almost hear Steve McQueen's motorcycle in the background.

Lord and Park bring this story to life using a painstaking process of animation that creates the characters and sets using Plasticine models, then manipulates them, frame by frame, to produce movement. So engaging is the story and so equally funny and fleshed out are the characters, that you hardly notice the process of bringing them to life. Instead of wondering about the animation, you focus on Ginger's unflinching hopefulness, the Statler-and-Waldorf commentary from the barnyard's two rats, an escape from the Mrs. Tweedy's pie-making machine that would make Indiana Jones proud, and countless other points. The humor is subtle, but omnipresent: while there are few belly-laughs, the animators mine their subjects' inherent goofiness in every frame. Coupled with a clever script, they leave you smiling from frame to frame, eager to what's next and chuckling quietly under your breath.

Nor are the animators alone in their efforts: the actors all seem tailor-made for their parts and deliver vocal performances of spot-on perfection. This is especially noticeable with Gibson, who seems to have found an avian avatar in the part of Rocky. With his easy charm and flashing smile, Rocky satirizes Gibson's mega-hunk image while facilitating some funny satire on Anglo-American relations. He finds an excellent foil in Sawalha, who sells Ginger's iron belief in a "better place out there" without overplaying it, and in Benjamin Whitrow, playing the farm's only resident rooster (a grizzled RAF veteran named Fowler). The rest of the cast follows in good form, from Lynn Ferguson's daft Scots engineer Mac to Richardson's menacing Mrs. Tweedy. All of the voices match the natural humor of the animation, transforming the models from amusing (but empty) images into believable characters before our eyes. Tweedy's farm is as real and alive as any setting in film, and the chickens who inhabit it are more real than most human characters. Gibson, Sawalha and company have as much to do with that as Parks and his animators.

The real magic of Chicken Run is how personable it is, how easy and effortless it tells its story. For all of the hundreds of artists working on it, it still plays like a joke told by your best friend -- a sly comment intended for you and no one else. While many so-called "family films" aim for the broadest possible audience appeal, few achieve it with the genuine wit and imagination as this one... and few have as much respect for their material. Ginger and her cohorts may need to split this scene, but you'd be foolish to follow them: Chicken Run is the kind of movie you never want to end.

Review published 06.30.2000.

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