Chicken Run

There are several two-word phrases that strike fear into the heart of film critics, among them: "Pauly Shore," "Potemkin remake," and "Eszterhas musical". "Family film" is also high on the list, given that most movies billed as "something the whole family can enjoy" are usually dumbed-down, lowest common denominator efforts. Chicken Run is a welcome exception. It’s smart and charming, a family film in the best sense – a multi-layered feast where all ages will find much to enjoy. Nick Park has already won three Oscars for his short animated films Creature Comforts, The Wrong Trousers, and A Close Shave, the latter two starring the Wallace and Gromit characters. Here he teams with co-director/producer Peter Lord and expands his Plasticine world into an 85-minute feature filled with artistry and wonder.

The hens at the veddy British and foreboding Tweedy’s Egg Farm are in a bind – if they don’t produce eggs, they end up as dinner. Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha) is determined to break out, but so far all her attempts have met with failure. The situation becomes even more bleak at their concentration camp-like compound when Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson) decides to take her business in a new direction. She’s bought a Rube Goldberg-ian machine that inhales chickens at one end, and spits out chicken pies on the other. Enter Rocky (Mel Gibson), a brash Yank who literally drops in from above – he’s a famous flying rooster, escaped from a circus, and calls himself "The Lone Free Ranger". He soon has most of Tweedy’s flock enthralled with his promise to teach them all to fly, so that they can escape the clutches of the perilous pie press.

This is a film that can be appreciated on several levels. As a children’s feature it’s cute and instructive – we see Ginger and the flock trying increasingly imaginative ways to escape, some ingenious, all funny. For adults, there’s a large dose of dry, wry humor and a wealth of scenes where Chicken Run parodies and pays homage to other films – there’s enough references to warrant a second viewing to try and catch them all. Fragments of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Star Trek, The Shawshank Redemption, The Great Escape, Stalag 17, Flight of the Phoenix, and Cool Hand Luke are all there, nuggets waiting to be discovered.

A team of 300 (including 40 animators) worked for over two years to produce Chicken Run. Its use of the "claymation" type of animation is particularly impressive, given that there are 24 frames per second of film time, and that each character needed to be moved minutely by hand for each new frame. There are some scenes with dozens of characters, each with distinct facial expressions, physiques and personalities. The set design and art direction create a world that’s amazing to look at, and there’s a big dance number that’s a marvelous melding of art and logistics.

In a summer when Mission:Impossible 2, Dinosaur, and Titan A.E. have all taken special effects and animation technology to new heights, it’s refreshing to find a production that uses decidedly low-tech methods to produce such impressive results. This is a film that has used technology as the servant of its story, not the master. There’s nothing much here to make your eyes pop or cause you to marvel, "How did they do that?" But by the conclusion of Chicken Run, you’ll find that you’ve got a very large grin on your face nonetheless.

– Bob Aulert