Chicken Run, the first feature-length film from the claymation wizards who brought us the Wallace and Gromit films, is quite simply the most delightful film released so far this year. It is also one of the cleverest.
Inspired by classic prisoner-of-war movies such as The Great Escape and The Bridge on the River Kwai, the film concerns a group of hens who are trapped on a British chicken farm. Surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, the hens live in buildings that resemble barracks, while the farmer, Mr. Tweedy, patrols the perimeter with his guard dog at night. If a hen can no longer lay eggs, she is doomed to become dinner for the Tweedys.
The chickens, led by the intelligent and industrious Ginger (voice of Julia Sawalha), try to escape many times, but to no avail. The film tosses out many funny ideas in its first few minutes, as we get brief glimpses of the numerous failed attempts; each ends with Mr. Tweedy (Tony Haygarth) throwing Ginger, like Steve McQueen before her, into the ‘solitary confinement’ of the coal shed.
Things begin to look a little more hopeful for the hens when Rocky Rooster (Mel Gibson), a circus acrobat, falls out of the sky one night and tells them that he can teach them how to fly to safety. Ginger is skeptical, but the other hens are only too happy to have a young, virile rooster about the place. His only competition is Fowler (Benjamin Whitrow), an older, fussy, stiff-upper-beak sort who complains about everyone’s lack of discipline and talks incessantly about his days with the RAF.
The chickens’ situation becomes increasingly desperate when Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson) buys a machine that makes chicken pies. This unwieldy contraption, and the frantic efforts of Rocky and Ginger to escape its clutches, give co-director Nick Park a chance to indulge his love for the sorts of elaborate gadgets and extended action sequences that made The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave such entertaining short films.
Park, reportedly a Christian — I saw him introduce a screening of The Wrong Trousers at Greenbelt, the British Christian music festival, in 1994 — knows there is more to a movie than grandiose stunts, and Chicken Run works on more intimate levels as well. It teems with clever details, like the zipper a rat wears as if it were a tie; and the supporting characters, scripted by Karey Kirkpatrick and performed by some of the better British character actors, are both amusing and utterly believable.
My favourite was Babs (Jane Horrocks), a chirpy birdbrain who is never seen without her knitting needles. (In a very rare moment of depression, she knits a noose!) When Ginger explains how the pie machine operates, Babs protests, “I don’t want to be a pie. I don’t like gravy!” Phil Daniels and Mike Leigh regular Timothy Spall are also rather droll as a pair of rats who sell the hens the contraband tools they need to break out of the farm.
Like the Toy Story movies, which it resembles, Chicken Run is an imaginative look at a world hidden from humans even though it exists under our very noses. Chicken Run is more impressive, on a technical level; you can always back up a computer program, but there is little room for error when adjusting stop-motion puppets one frame at a time.
Not coincidentally, both films were also produced, for the most part, outside of the major studios, which have had lots of money to throw around in recent years but little inspiration to show for it. Chicken Run points the way back to a time when cartoons were true labors of love.