Chicken Run (United Kingdom, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Many fans of Nick Park have been wondering what the animated filmmaker has been doing recently. Known to millions across the globe as the creator of the characters Wallace & Gromit (a British inventor with a penchant for Rube Goldberg devices and his smart dog), Park can no longer live in the obscurity he once enjoyed. It has been half-a-decade since the last Wallace & Gromit short reached audiences, and Park has been quiet since then. The reason can be summed up in two words: Chicken Run. An ambitious, full-length motion picture employing Park's signature clay-animation style (albeit without Wallace or Gromit), Chicken Run represents an attempt by Park to break free of his status as a cult figure and move into the mainstream. To that end, he has recruited some instantly recognizable voices (such as Miranda Richardson and Mel Gibson) to voice his characters and struck a distribution deal with Dreamworks Pictures. If Chicken Run doesn't broaden Park's audience, nothing will

The early summer movie season features four animated motion pictures - all suitable for family viewing, but all non-traditional in one way or another. Dinosaur, Disney's ultra-expensive 2000 offering, combines computer-generated creatures with live-action backdrops. Titan AE, from Fox, is a science fiction effort that has been heavily influenced by Japanese anime. Fantasia 2000, also from Disney, moves its symphonic format from an IMAX-exclusive run to regular multiplexes. Then there's Chicken Run, which employs a more basic (and, some might argue, more primitive) animation process than any of the others - the constant repositioning of clay figures, a tactic that has been used since the early days of cinema, when Willis O'Brien brought prehistoric dinosaurs and giant apes to life.

If the overall storyline of Chicken Run strikes a vague chord of familiarity, that's because it borrows loosely from the classic World War 2 adventure, The Great Escape. "Loosely", however, is the operative word; Chicken Run is no more a knockoff of The Great Escape than A Bug's Life was of The Seven Samurai. The movie is, appropriately enough, about a group of chickens, led by the hen Ginger (voice of Julia Sawalha, from TV's "Absolutely Fabulous" and Kenneth Branagh's A Midwinter's Tale), who are trapped on the farm of the stupid and greedy Mr. Tweedy (Tony Haygarth). Their lives are grinds: they produce eggs, which are collected by Tweedy and his wife (Miranda Richardson), then, when their egg-laying days are over, they become candidates for a chicken dinner. Unwilling to resign herself to such an existence, Ginger begins formulating escape plans. But, while getting one or two chickens off Tweedy's farm is feasible, freeing everyone seems to be an impossible task - until the unexpected arrival of Rocky the Flying Rooster (Mel Gibson), who crash-lands on the farm after escaping from a circus. In return for the hens hiding him, he agrees to teach them how to fly so they can sail over the fence penning them in. Unfortunately, Rocky isn't entirely trustworthy.

Rocky and Ginger may be the most prominent personalities in Chicken Run, but they're not the only ones. The chicken coops on Tweedy's farm boast several quirky characters, such as a pair of rodents who spend much of their time ridiculing the hens' unsuccessful attempts to fly - that is, when they're not debating which came first, the chicken or the egg. The patriarch of the farm is an elderly rooster who constantly reminisces about the time he spent in the RAF during World War 2. A hen with a Scottish accent offers advice on engineering and physics (she could be called Scotty), while another, who spends much of her free time knitting, worries that her usefulness might be at an end now that she has stopped laying eggs.

Although children will enjoy the film's likable animated protagonists and won't have any problem wrestling with the straightforward storyline, Chicken Run's greatest appeal may be reserved for adults, who will appreciate the movie's singular wit. A fair amount of the dry, British humor is going to go over the heads of younger viewers. There are enough obvious jokes that kids won't be completely left out of the laughter loop, but my sense is that audience members over the age of 15 will find Chicken Run to be more amusing than those in the preteen and under-10 crowd.

Chicken Run is truly an unusual endeavor since, unlike every other animated motion picture reaching screens this year, its primary aim is not to astound viewers visually. In fact, with its old-fashioned approach to animation, it looks clunky in comparison to some of its competitors. Of course, that's part of Chicken Run's charm, but a lot of kids probably won't buy into it. And, since a significant portion of the target audience will not accept a motion picture that doesn't offer start-to-finish action or eye-popping visuals, Chicken Run is beginning its theatrical life with a handicap. Hopefully, adults, won over by the smart-yet-uncomplicated script and charming execution, will encourage their offspring to see the film. Children will almost certainly enjoy the movie if they give it a chance.

At the dawn of the third millennium, animation has become the domain of the United States and Japan, so it's a rare pleasure to see another movie industry enter into the fray. With Chicken Run, Park has taken all that was enjoyable about Wallace & Gromit, brought it into a barnyard, and extended it to feature length. Fans of the previous Aardman animated shorts (two of which have won Academy Awards) will undoubtedly shower Park with plaudits for what he has accomplished here. All that remains is for audiences at large to discover the simple-but-engaging entertainment of Chicken Run.

Chicken Run (United Kingdom, 2000)

Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 2000-06-16
MPAA Rating: "G"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1