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Chicken Run

Director: Nick Park and Peter Lord
Cast: Voices of Mel Gibson, Julia Sawalha, Miranda Richardson, Jane Horrocks, Lynn Ferguson, Imelda Staunton

(Dreamworks; 2000)

It's Raining Hen

“C


hicken Impossible,” say the inevitably punning ads. Where I come from, this means the chickens in question are really Ritz crackers.


But in case you wind up seeing that other “Impossible” movie by mistake, you’ll be sure to note right quick that the cast is not comprised of Ritz crackers (with or without chopped liver), but Cheez Doodles. Be warned. Alas, you can’t fight summer blockbuster season, when the public’s hunger for celluloid adrenaline is directly proportional to their electric bills. But you can select the white meat and leave the gizzards and grease for the cat. And if you’re one of the finicky few for whom the search for faster car chases, bigger explosions, and thicker eyebrows inspires nothing but yawns, be of good cheer: it’s raining hen. Hallelujah! There’s nary a car, bomb, or Scientologist in sight!


Chicken Run is, nonetheless, an old-fashioned edge-of-your-seat escape flick. It just happens to be peopled by chickens. The movie asks, What happens when the meanest, most vicious egg farmer of all time decides to move from eggs to chicken pies? The hens plot their escape, of course — led by one Ginger (voiced by Absolutely Fabulous‘s Julia Sawalha) and her cronies in Hut (or is that Stalag?) 17. The gals are, um, aided by a swaggering (dare I say cocky?) American rooster (Mel Gibson, whose Aussie rendering of the English language, as the film playfully reminds us, used to warrant dubbing). Until his recent escape from the circus, Rocky (“Rhode Island Red”) Rhode’s bit entailed actual flying — an art in which the soon-to-be-em-pied flock take immediate and intense interest.


Rounding out the cast are the aforementioned ogress, Malicia Tweedy (Miranda Richardson), whose understated evil plays out in salient relief from Disney’s animated villainesses, who all appear to be drag queens. Mr. Tweedy (Tony Haygarth), her dullard of a husband, suspects that the hens are plotting something, but his wife peremptorily squelches such notions: it’s all in your head, she scolds. In the coop camp, there’s Colonel Fowler, R.A.F., retired (Benjamin Whitrow), a rather stock character who is unfortunate enough to have a scrotum hanging from his beak. Fowler is ever a-bellow about order and discipline and Why, when I was just a…, Back in my day we never…, Why, how dare you treat an officer…?, and so on, and he doesn’t trust the Yank any farther than he, well, than he could fly. “Americans!” he blusters, “Always showing up late for every war.”


Further assisting the escape plans, a brainy Scots-hen named Mac (Lynn Ferguson) handles all engineering concerns (“Well, that didnae work”), and a brace of rats, Nick (Timothy Spall) and Fetcher (Phil Daniels), purvey sundries for the ladies’ escape schemes and deliver some of the movie’s funniest dialogue in the process. (“After you, Fetcher,” says Nick, preparing to exit. Blink. Blink. “After I what?” Fetcher responds.)


Chicken Run is the first feature to come from Aardman Animation’s star director Nick Park, creator of the Wallace and Gromit cartoons as well as the splendid (and aptly foreshadowing) short film, “Creature Comforts,” in which the residents of a zoo are interviewed regarding their living arrangements. The new movie has all the trademarks of Park’s claymation (or as they call it in UK, plasticene animation): characters with brow-ridges like shoehorns and an extreme penchant for showing their teeth (and yes, hens’ teeth are anything but rare here), a loving attention to detail, dry British humor, breathtaking scenes in which a lot of very fast, very witty action is choreographed (remember the toy train chase in “The Wrong Trousers”?). Fans of the shorter works — well, this fan of the shorter works, anyway — wondered how well these elements would hold up at feature length. The answer, I’m delighted to report, is swimmingly.


Not that Chicken Run has any big surprises in store: with the basic set-up, evident from the TV trailers, you know full well that the movie doesn’t end with all our heroes in gravy on the local supermarket shelves. And you know that the friction that initially sparks between Rocky and Ginger is destined to mellow and morph into l’amour. Chicken Run does not redefine the genre. But it is full of little surprises, small quirks of style and humor, some of which really do break new ground in animated features. A scene in which Ginger and Rocky safely (if narrowly) negotiate Mrs. Tweedy’s pie-making machine demonstrates some of the cleverest animated gadgetry since the heyday of Fritz Freleng’s Rube Goldbergesque assembly lines and construction sites—and in clay, no less! Elsewhere, the juxtaposition of Mrs. Tweedy’s terrifying “real” face and its beatified billboard counterpart pokes pointed fun at the little white lies of the advertising biz.


To fill the big screen with a big movie, Chicken Run‘s creators seem to have set out with a broadly cinematic vision, borrowing bits of style and substance from assorted cultural icons: Rocky and Ginger’s narrow escape under a slowly descending door is quoted verbatim from Raiders of the Lost Ark, right down to the retrieval of a dropped article (in this case, Ginger’s hat). Late in the movie, we’re treated to an extended reference to Star Trek (the Geezer Generation), which fingers precisely the filmmakers’ choice to make the engineer Scottish. There’s even a miniature homage to Monty Python: Fetcher the rat asks Mick, “You wanna dance?” to which Mick, after a considerable pause we’re meant to read as contemptuous, replies, “Yeah, all right.”


More generally, Park and co-director (and Aardman co-founder) Peter Lord employ a cinematic vocabulary that is seldom seen in animation. Taking cues from The Great Escape, Stalag 17, and other classic prisoner- of-war dramas, the gray and gritty sets (and a set of truly frightening guard dogs) establish a grim daily routine and a grimmer outlook for our feathered friends against which their humor and derring-do play out. The skies, often viewed at an upward angle from behind the hens, are perpetually bleak and foreboding. Much of the action takes place at night and in the shadows. At one moment when the hens are particularly disheartened, we zoom out and up, looking straight down at the coopyard inhabitants, gloomily tolerating a falling rain.


Too much realism? A familiar cry elsewhere in the animation world, where computers are generating eye-poppingly authentic dinosaurs for Disney (who then ruins them by bestowing thereupon human facial expressions); and where Fox’s Titan flick and its preceding Anastasia have rightly drawn flak for not drawing at all — the animation cels are basically traced (again with computer assistance) on live-action film. But by comparison, Aardman Animation’s too-real- realism is forgivable: Park, et. al. are playing with filmic conventions, not the technique of the art itself. The potential for craftsmanship and creativity is hardly diminished by borrowing some imagery from the classic film canon.


In fact, I’d argue it is just these creative decisions that allow Chicken Run to transcend the usual rut of animated features: if life is not an endless suite of pains and fears, why bother dreaming of paradise? Why bother filming it? This is not sugar-coated kiddie fare, folks: poor, unegg-productive Edwina really does get decapitated early in the movie (we — and the hens — see the axe’s shadow), and when your chickens are anthropomorphized, that counts as murder. Still, when the stakes are that high, the spoils are so much more precious. Chicken Run‘s requisite happy ending actually made my eyes misty — and I can’t remember the last time a bunch of humans did that.

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