"Are you back from holiday?" Judge Erick Harper takes a look at the funniest poultry-themed animated film of 2000, if not ever.
Escape or die frying!
Directors Peter Lord and Nick Park are the claymation geniuses who created the Academy-Award winning Wallace and Gromit short films. Their company, Aardman Animation Studios, also produced Creature Comforts, another award-winning claymation short. Their painstaking work is marked by clever stories and whimsical characters that reinforce their distinctly British sense of humor. Chicken Run is their first attempt at a feature length film.
Facts of the Case
Our wonderfully absurd tale takes place in Yorkshire, England, in the late 1950s. Mrs. Tweedy runs a chicken farm with the help of her bumbling husband. She rules with an iron fist, keeping a watchful eye on each hen's egg production. It is a dreary life, for both the Tweedys and their feathered prisoners.
In the oppressive confines of the chicken yard, one chicken has a vision for bettering their lot in life. Ginger has a dream that one day the chickens will be free from roll calls and egg quotas and the constant fear of being roasted and eaten. She is forever organizing escape attempts, each one more comically ingenious than the last. Just when she is about to give up hope, the answer to her prayers seems to fall out of the sky. His name is Rocky, and he is a flying rooster from America who has escaped from a circus. Ginger immediately strikes a deal; in exchange for hiding Rocky and not turning him over, he will teach the hens how to fly. Then, they can escape and live out their dream of a peaceful tranquil life. Rocky accepts, albeit reluctantly.
Mrs. Tweedy is setting out to better her lot in life as well. She is sick and tired of making miniscule profits, and she has a plan to turn her chicken farm into a gold mine. Her plan calls for the farm to switch from egg production to production of "Mrs. Tweedy's Chicken Pies." The installation of a monstrous automated pie-making machine lends an even greater urgency to Ginger's escape attempts, as all of the chickens are now doomed to be baked in a flaky pastry crust with gravy and mixed vegetables.
Chicken Run was conceived as an absurdist spin on the great WWII prison camp movies, notably Stalag 17 and The Great Escape. There are references made to both of those movies, both in the form of sly sight gags and in scenes almost directly cribbed from them. There is a whole subgenre of POW and/or prison movies, and Chicken Run observes their conventions faithfully. There all the required scenes; the hero stuck in solitary confinement for days on end, the escape committee meetings, the close shaves with the bumbling guard. There are also the required scenes with the camp "scrounger," the guy who can get anything for a price; in this case, two wily rodents named Nick and Fetcher fill the role.
What makes Chicken Run so different from ordinary prison movies is, well, the chickens. Nick Park, one of the co-directors, observes in the commentary track that since chickens are such stupid animals, there was a rich vein of absurdity to be mined for laughs in enlisting them in such a daring, organized enterprise. He's right; there is something inherently funny about the notion of chickens with British accents trying to escape from a POW camp. This premise combines with Lord and Park's slightly wacky imagination and sense of humor to create a very humorous and entertaining movie.
The amount of work that goes into producing a claymation film is staggering. There is no CGI wizardry here; the stop-motion techniques employed by Lord, Park, and their team have changed relatively little since the days of the original King Kong. Each of the 110,000 frames of film that comprise the movie has to be treated as an individual shot. After each frame is photographed, the animators make minor movements, change facial expressions, and so on before shooting the next frame and repeating the process all over again. Using these techniques, the Aardman team has been able to create fluid, realistic movement that gives the characters a natural, lifelike feel.
The impressive artistry in the film also extends to more conventional areas of filming, such as lighting and composition. The lighting is especially important, as it makes the sets they characters inhabit feel like they are part of the real world. Chicken Run gets these seemingly mundane, technical aspects of moviemaking exactly right, and as a result is able to create a believable, if strange, reality.
The voice performances are no disappointment either. Julia Sawalha (Absolutely Fabulous) stars as Ginger, the determined leader of the escape attempts. Mel Gibson (Braveheart, Gallipoli) is surprisingly good as Rocky. His comedic voice work reminded me a lot of Tim Allen in Pixar's Toy Story films. The surrounding cast is great as well, including Jane Horrocks (Absolutely Fabulous) as the ditzy Babs, and Miranda Richardson (The Crying Game, Sleepy Hollow) as the tyrannical Mrs. Tweedy.
Picture quality is very good, as one might expect. Colors are bright and vivid, blacks are dark and solid, and there are no film scratches or blemishes that I could detect. There were a few scenes where I detected some graininess or distortion, but overall this is another very clean, sharp transfer from Dreamworks.
Audio is presented in DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, and Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. If you want a good demonstration of the surround sound on this disc, check out chapter 15, as Ginger and Rocky are trying to escape from Mrs. Tweedy's pie-making machine. There is one scene in particular where they are trapped in the oven, and gas jets ignite in sequence all the way around them and the viewer. The use of surround sound here is outstanding, and also demonstrates the improved clarity available from a DTS audio track as opposed to a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. While both were outstanding, the DTS track carries that extra bit of sharpness that really makes the action on screen seem almost real.
Ah, Dreamworks, the studio where every disc is a special edition. As usual, they have included a veritable cornucopia of extra content on this DVD. There are two featurettes included. The first is entitled "Poultry in Motion: The Making of Chicken Run." It runs for 21 minutes and includes input from many of the actors involved, as well as directors Lord and Park. It is an informative look at the hard work that went into making the movie. There is also a second, shorter featurette entitled "The Hatching of Chicken Run," which covers a lot of the same material but does go into the history of Aardman Animation. The real treat here is a collection of excerpts from their earlier work, especially the "Wallace and Gromit" shorts.
The disc also holds a number of fairly standard features, done with the usual Dreamworks excellence. Cast and crew biographies are provided; ten cast members and thirteen crewmembers, to be precise. These are quite lengthy and detailed. Production notes are provided, although as usual they are the same as the liner notes inside the DVD case. Two trailers and a TV spot are included; as an added bonus, there is a fairly long preview of Dreamworks's upcoming Shrek included as well.
There are a number of more unique features as well. First, there is a Read-Along feature which functions as a sort of video storybook for children to read along with. I've noticed this on other Dreamworks children's/family films, and I think it is a nice touch. This feature will take kids through the basic story in about seventeen minutes. There is also what appears to be a fairly large amount of DVD-ROM content.
Finally, the centerpiece special feature is a commentary track featuring the two directors. It seemed surprisingly dry to me; for some reason I was expecting it to be a lot funnier than it was. It did contain a lot of interesting information about the ideas behind each scene and the sources of inspiration for the movie.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I suppose one could criticize Chicken Run for being derivative and for following slavishly the conventions of its chosen genre. I suppose one could criticize it for being excessively predictable. However, there are enough twists thrown in that I feel such criticism is unwarranted. Some may feel that the ending, which I thought was creative and in keeping with the overall tone of the film, was too farfetched and unrealistic. On the other hand, once one has accepted the basic premise of chickens plotting to escape from a prison camp, how realistic can one expect the movie to be?
Let's face it, Chicken Run is not a movie that is going to explore the great questions of human (or chicken) existence. If you want to explore the personal and ethical dilemmas of POW's, you would be better off watching The Bridge on the River Kwai, Stalag 17, or Grand Illusion. However, if you want an exciting, hilarious, slightly warped story about chickens just trying to be free, then this is the movie for you. I enjoyed it a lot and recommend it highly.
The film and all involved in making it are acquitted and released with the thanks of the court. Dreamworks has once again given us an outstanding DVD presentation, and they are to be commended.
We stand adjourned.
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