Chicken Run (review)

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Rage Against the Machine

(Best of 2000)

[100% free of chicken puns!]

Chicken Run had hardly begun, at the all-media screening at New York’s huge Ziegfeld Theater, before there was some idiot giggling her head off at the movie. Okay, the film is immensely clever and often laugh-out-loud funny, but come on: Give it a chance to do its thing before you start rolling on the floor.

For the record, I was that idiot. And I will defend my manic tittering against all comers, because Chicken Run starts doing its thing from its opening frame, and doesn’t let up for the next 85 minutes (be sure to stay through the end credits, too).
I was primed, I’ll confess, before I even entered the theater. I’m a huge fan of Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit toons, and the thought of seeing his animated take on chickens, which are inherently funny to start with, had me a-twitter with anticipation. Fear lurked in the back of my mind, however: Would Hollywood water down Park’s warm, comfortable, yet bittersweet skew of ordinary Englishness? The accents, the dialects, the touch of weird darkness under the snug homeyness… would it all be processed into American cheese?

I needn’t have worried. Park and his team at Aardman Animations, including co-director Peter Lord and screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick, were left alone to make a sneaky, cheeky parody of prison and escape movies that nevertheless finds decidedly unsentimental pathos in the predicament of farmyard chickens.

And you know right from the film’s opening moments that you’re in for a witty, Aardman-brand treat: Just as The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave borrowed the conventions of film noir, so does Chicken Run pay homage to its full-scale big brothers, with a “crane” shot over the forbidding prison of a Yorkshire chicken coop and a pan across the barbed-wire fence as the guard dogs make their rounds, straining at their leashes. It’s a claymation tribute to the first moments of Stalag 17, and even if you don’t recognize the particular reference, you recognize that what has become cliché is suddenly fresh again, and it tickles. And then, a sticklike chicken foot at the end of a sticklike chicken leg steps out of the protective shadow of a coop, into the light, readying to run. The import with which this chicken’s desire to escape is treated is charming and wonderful and hilarious.

The chicken is Ginger (the voice Julia Sawalha, best known for her role as Saffy on Absolutely Fabulous), and she longs for escape, as Chicken Run begins, on principle: She wants to roam in a world that has no fences, a concept she has difficulty conveying to her fellow hens — they’ve been institutionalized, as Morgan Freeman explained to Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption. Of course, there’s the constant prospect of being turned into dinner, if a hen’s egg production drops, but the need for freedom turns urgent when the evil Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson: Sleepy Hollow, Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, in full-on Margaret Hamilton mode), wife of the browbeaten farmer Mr. Tweedy (Tony Haygarth: Don Quixote), decides than an egg farm simply isn’t lucrative enough. She purchases a machine to begin “full-scale automated production” of chicken pies. While Mr. Tweedy assembles the beast in the barn, Ginger takes advantage of the brief reprieve to finally and at last plan a breakout for every single one of the chickens on Tweedy’s farm.

It’s extraordinary how stylized chickens made of clay can exhibit such touching emotion. A hand to Ginger’s chest is all that’s necessary to show her dismay as one of her coopmates heads for the chopping block, and those trademark Aardman grins — wide, toothy, and bottom heavy — express such tentative hopefullness that you’re immediately suckered in to Ginger’s basic optimism that freedom is imminent. Her hopes are raised when an unexpected guest literally drops into the coop: Rocky (Mel Gibson: Payback, Lethal Weapon 4), an American rooster who claims he can fly — Ginger latches on to him as the key to her plans. He will teach them all to fly right over the fences. Rocky, of course, is not all that he seems.

The story of Ginger’s quest is engaging enough for those who don’t get all the movie references to have a good time, but Chicken Run is doubly fun for those of us who do. An homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark, throwaway allusions to Mel Gibson’s film history, nods to classic prison movies, takeoffs on conventions of action movies… all and more are jammed into Chicken Run without ever feeling forced or contrived. Even the characters themselves are stock without being hackneyed: Nick (Timothy Spall: Love’s Labour’s Lost, Topsy-Turvy) and Fetcher (Phil Daniels), the rats who can get anything you need; and the motley gang of “prisoners,” including dim but sweet Babs (Jane Horrocks), who worries at knitting, Bunty (Imelda Staunton: Shakespeare in Love), the champion egg layer, and Mac (Lynn Ferguson), the Scottish engineer.

As with the Wallace and Gromit shorts, Chicken Run looks at technology with an uneasy eye: The 18-wheeler that brings the pie machine to Tweedy’s farm is a growling, menacing creature, and it’s the prospect of mechanization that spells certain doom for the chickens, our heroes. Wallace is a bit of bumbler with gadgets, even those of his own invention, and here Mac’s thingamajigs never quite seem to work properly — it’s ultimately a fairly low-tech contraption that wins the day.

Aardman animation methods are craftsmanlike and old-fashioned, too: The tiny, painstaking adjustments to clay figures, repeated twenty-four times for every second of film, meant that Chicken Run took three years to make. Could that be why they were left to their own devices? What harm could a bunch of guys with Play-Doh possibly do?

In fact, with Hollywood money, Aardman made a subversively funny flick that embodies many of the things that American movies usually shy away from: the only American character is a useless, self-centered coward, and the hero and the villain are both female.

Now that’s funny.

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