"Chicken Run", the latest animated feature film to bow into movie theaters, is a marked departure from the state of art animation audiences have become accustomed to in recent years. Since 1995, traditional animation has converged with advances in computer graphics to create hybrid animated films such as "Titan A.E." or "Mulan", as well as films completely generated on computer graphics workstations, such as "A Bug's Life" or "Dinosaur". With "Chicken Run", animators Peter Lord and Nick Park have taken a decidedly low-tech approach to animation that is more in line with their award-winning "Wallace & Gromit" series, claymation. Using articulated figures molded in colored plasticine, each shot in "Chicken Run" was painstakingly made by moving the clay figures slightly so as to provide the illusion of movement in the final product. With almost two years of production time, four tons of plasticine, and over five hundred individually animated characters, getting "Chicken Run" to the big screen was certainly no easy feat. Fortunately, the finished product holds up well against the more technologically advanced competition, with its moving and insightful tale, wicked dialogue, and colorful characters.
The setting for the film is the Tweedy Chicken Farm, a barbed-wire enclosure located in 1950s England, where a couple hundred hens are relegated to an existence of indentured servitude. Mrs. Tweedy (voiced by Miranda Richardson of "Fatherland"), the farm's matron, runs a tight operation, collecting eggs from the hens each morning, while sending any non-productive chickens to the chopping block. While most of the chickens are resigned to a life of captivity, one plucky hen named Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha) has bolder aspirations, and tirelessly comes up with schemes for escape. Unfortunately, whether the escape involves crawling under the fence, using a disguise, or digging a tunnel, Ginger is always caught by the dim-witted Mr. Tweedy (Tony Haygarth) or his vicious guard dogs, and is thrown into 'solitary confinement' as punishment. But despite numerous failed attempts, Ginger refused to give up on finding a better life.
Ginger sees an answer to her prayers in a charming American, a Rhode Island Red rooster named Rocky (Mel Gibson of "Payback") who literally falls out of the sky one night, having escaped from a local circus where he is billed as 'the flying rooster'. She makes a deal with Rocky-- teach everyone how to fly over the fence and onto freedom, and they'll hide him from Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy, who have been offered a reward for his return. Surrounded by so many affection-starved hens, as well as motivated by the threat of being returned to the circus, Rocky reluctantly accepts Ginger's deal.
The timing couldn't be better, of course, since Mrs. Tweedy, who has become increasingly vexed by the low profitability of the egg business, decides to venture into a new line of business-- chicken pies. A new pie-making machine is built on the farm, and Mrs. Tweedy increases everyone's rations to fatten them up for the slaughter. Hopefully, Rocky will teach everyone how to fly, and they'll be able to leave the farm intact-- or will he?
Similar to the manner in which "Antz" payed homage to Woody Allen films, or how "A Bug's Life" reworked "The Seven Samurai", "Chicken Run" plays with the paradigms of prison camp movies, such as "The Great Escape", "Stalag 17", and "The Bridge Over the River Kwai". Fans of the genre will have a field day examining how the conventions of these films have been used in "Chicken Run". However, the story goes deeper than some clever references-- underneath all the chicken jokes and claymation is an interesting look at human behavior, specifically 'siege mentality'.
The hens on Tweedy's farm have a wide range of guiding principles and aspirations, which adds a number of interesting layers in what could have been just a simple story about escape. For example, while Ginger is doggedly determined to find a better life without any fences, many of her fellow internees are resigned to believing that escape is impossible, and feel that they are better off cooperating with the powers-that-be to make the best of what little time they have left. Another part of the film has Rocky choosing between saving his own neck versus making a stand with Ginger and the rest of the hens.
As such, the tone of "Chicken Run" becomes weighty at times, as the pathos fully conveys the sense of impending dread facing the hens-- enough to possibly convince some moviegoers to become vegans. One key scene has one non-productive chicken being taken to the slaughterhouse, and instead of a daring last-minute escape or stroke of good luck, the axe comes down and there is no mistake about what has just happened-- the effect on the remaining chickens is just as devastating. Those familiar with critically-acclaimed Art Spiegelman's graphic novel "Maus: A Survivor's Tale" (which recontextualizes the Holocaust into a literal cat-and-mouse game) will probably have a sense of déja vu when watching "Chicken Run".
However, proceedings are not entirely grim. In addition to some snappy dialogue that incorporates a number of chicken jokes and references (they even unsuccessfully tried to work in a 'chicken crossed the road' gag into the script), the farm is populated by some terrific stock characters. There's Fowler (Benjamin Withrow of "The Saint"), the only other rooster on the farm, an old coot who believes in discipline and can't stop babbling on about his days in the Royal Air Force. Then there's Mac, the brainy Scottish hen (glasses and all), who helps Ginger engineer and work out the bugs of the elaborate escape plans, as well as Nick and Fetcher, a couple of shrewd rats who offer a 'black market' for the internees. Finally, there's Babs (Jane Horrocks), who may not be the smartest chicken in the hen house, but at least she has her heart in the right place.
While "Chicken Run" may not boast the most amazing special effects (though a number of complex scenes involving hundreds of characters and complex action are impressive), it certainly makes up for it in the storytelling. Despite its claymation trappings, which would probably cause a number of moviegoers to immediately dismiss it as kid's fare, there's a lot of heart and humanity in the story, and like "Babe", it works on two levels. While adult audiences will probably find much of the material both familiar and emotionally sincere, kids will enjoy it simply for the action and the humor. Run, don't walk to see this film!