Chickens With Teeth
I remember reading somewhere that in animation, the key to “humanizing” animals above and beyond merely anthropomorphizing them is to give them human eyes, big, deep, expressive human eyes that hint at an equally human soul. I imagine this is written in some sort of animator’s bible. And I suspect that if you look in Aardman Animations’ copy of this bible, you’ll find the words “and teeth” appended there too. Highlighted in bright yellow.
Teeth and all, this “humanization” may have succeeded a little too well in Chicken Run. The chickens are more human than many of the characters you’ll find in other summer movies. Watch M:I-2, Gone in 60 Seconds and Chicken Run in the same afternoon, and tell me which film seems the most plausible.
Superficially, Chicken Run is a five-word high-concept pitch made into a Movie “The Great Escape with chickens.” The successful transition from pitch to fully-realized film is where Aardman’s unique style comes into play. Would the script have worked nearly as well in the hands of Don Bluth? Would it be worth watching if performed by human actors? Probably not. What makes it work, what makes it magical, is Aardman’s unique plasticine-animation style. Though their methods are by no means old-fashioned, the sheer amount of labor and time necessary to take these characters through their paces hints at craftsmanship motivated by sheer love of storytelling something that profit-minded Hollywood often seems to have forgotten about.
The filmmakers’ care for the story and its telling is somehow obvious to even the youngest viewer. Compared with big-budget disasters like Battlefield Earth, it’s almost flattering that Chicken Run‘s makers have taken the time to tell this small, intimate story and to undertake the film’s painstaking animation process on our behalf.
It’s not just a small story, but a simple one. Ginger (Julia Sawalha), a plucky (sorry) young hen, constantly plots to liberate herself and her fellow hens from the prison camp-like confines of Tweedy’s Chicken Farm. She longs for a life free from forced egg production, but every escape plot falls to bits, often due to the other hens, who seem to humor her plans without ever truly understanding the implications of freedom. The unexpected arrival of Rocky (Mel Gibson), a fast-talking American rooster who seems to be able to fly, kicks Ginger’s escape plans into high gear and not a moment too soon, because Mrs. Tweedy’s greed has inspired her to move from egg farming into the more lucrative world of chicken pie-making.
The script offers riffs on familiar characters; Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson) provides Disney-esque villainy (she’s a sort of Cruella DeVille for the UK farm set) while the inexplicably Scottish chicken Mac (Lynn Ferguson), Ginger’s right-hand chicken and the farm’s de-facto engineer, is a wide-eyed mixture of Trainspotting‘s Spud and Star Trek‘s Scottie, who is, eventually and inevitably, invoked by specific dialogue. Sweet-but-dim hen Babs (Jane Horrocks) and crusty ex-RAF rooster Fowler (Benjamin Whitrow) will also seem familiar we’re familiar with these human archetypes from other films, if not from real life but none of these birds is ever allowed to descend into caricature. Okay, Fowler comes close, but his stock character actions build to a payoff in the film’s final moments.
You don’t have to be a mind-reader to realize that over the course of Chicken Run‘s 85-odd minutes, the darkest hour will arrive, the hens will learn to work together, as well as face and defeat their greatest fears and, in the end, good will triumph over evil. Neither should you be surprised to expect pop-cultural references. You’ll need to see the film a couple of times to catch them all, though many especially The Great Escape and Stalag 17 nods are gleefully blatant. After all, the film was sold as The Great Escape with chickens. Only a few of these references, like Rocky’s third-act Steve McQueen invocation, seem forced and even that may seem like the pinnacle of elegance in a week or so, when you’re suffering through the hammer-subtle jokes of Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Children should be particularly pleased by Chicken Run, if only because it doesn’t talk down to them. There’s no Jar Jar Binks on hand to lighten the intellectual load. Early in the film, a non-productive chicken winds up on the Tweedys’ dinner table; after this point, every child in the theater seemed a little more focused and a great deal more concerned that Ginger’s efforts should succeed. Similarly, the Aardman folks’ taste for Rube Goldberg machinery is well suited to young minds; the children with whom I saw the film were clearly fascinated by the intricate chicken pie-making machine.
For older viewers, or those looking for a more substantive intellectual payload, there’s a slightly more provocative interpretation of the film. Despite its World War II POW camp movie allusions, Chicken Run is actually something of a pro-Communist parable. The enemy is capitalism; more specifically, Mrs. Tweedy’s desire to make more money by selling chicken pies. Prior to the breakout, the hens share their eggs in order to insure that each chicken meets her production quota (from each according to her ability, to each according to her need). Ginger dreams of establishing a kind of “free range” chicken community, a cooperative in which chickens lay eggs when they want to, not when they’re forced to (i.e., in which the workers control the means of production).
Mr. Tweedy (Tony Haygarth) articulates this idea when he suggests that the chickens are “organizing,” but Mrs. Tweedy doesn’t believe a change is coming, and, as part of the old order, ultimately falls. An anti-capitalism message fits neatly in line with Aardman’s old-world, craftsmanship-over-profit approach, but one wonders whether anyone at Dreamworks noticed it.
Then again, it’s possible that nobody examined the finer points of Chicken Run‘s plot. Some of the details are dodgy. In particular, the role of eggs is a bit of a sticking point. Over the course of the film, the Jprecious eggs are traded, used as currency, even employed as weapons an ambiguous moral stance, at best, for these independent-minded chickens. Have they forgotten what the eggs are? Quite possibly, since we see no baby chicks on Tweedy’s Farm.
In the end, Chicken Run has more to offer in terms of animation quality, whimsy, and emotional impact than any other film this summer. In that respect, it’s this year’s Iron Giant. Let’s just hope that the film’s clever advertising and strong word of mouth, and the not inconsiderable fanbase for Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit series, keep it above water. In our cruel, capitalistic real world, it’s been trounced at the box office by Me, Myself & Irene. But I stand to spend some more time with Rocky and Ginger. Their cooperative could hold a few more tales worth telling. Chicken at Rest, anyone?