Chicken Run (2000)
Directed by Peter Lord, Nick Parks
Cast Voices: Julia Sawalha, Mel Gibson, Miranda Richardson, Tony Haygarth, Jane Horrocks, Timothy Spall, Phil Daniels, Lynn Ferguson, Benjamin Whitrow.
2000 85 minutes
Rated: (no objectionable material).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 24, 2000.
"Dinosaur" was depressingly recycled and ineffectual, and "Titan A.E." was uneven and forgettable, but "Chicken Run," directed by "Wallace and Gromit" alums Nick Park and Peter Lord, is a fresh and entertaining animated film, filled with originality, wit, and sharp writing that makes it the ideal motion picture of the summer that the whole family can go to and unadulteratedly enjoy.
Most are comparing the film to a spin on the POW pictures of the past, like "The Great Escape" and "Stalag 17," but striking me as more of a chicken-based variation on the Holocaust, "Chicken Run" is set at Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy's England-based farm, and centers on the poultry inhabitants who are constantly making attempts to escape the fenced-in, barbed-wired confinement that they have been restricted to. The head of most of the chickens' plans is the resourceful Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha, of TV's "Absolutely Fabulous"), who dreams of living the rest of her life free to roam the world's open spaces without having to worry about laying a certain number of eggs in order to survive the clutches of her owners.
One day, the suave American, Rocky (Mel Gibson), literally drops in on them, and billed as "The Amazing Flying Chicken" on a circus poster that was attached to him, they view him as their savior. Rocky halfheartedly agrees to teach everyone how to fly, but Ginger eventually begins to suspect he is just biding his time and doesn't, in fact, know how to fly himself. Their problems thicken when the chickens begin to receive overly generous food portions, and they soon learn that the evil Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson) is planning to fatten everyone up and turn them into chicken pies. "I don't want to be a pie," the alarmed and fairly naive Babs (Jane Horrocks) replies to the distressing news. "I don't even like gravy." Babs' words ring throughout the group of chickens, and they all realize it is up to them to escape once and for all, or die trying.
In the vein of the recent "Toy Story 2," "Chicken Run" is a marvelous children's movie that is smart enough to not talk down to the young ones, or the adults, and is stuffed with more than enough sophisticated jokes that the kids will think are silly, and the parents will think are truly droll and funny. Using the talents of Aardman Animation Studios, the film is an extraordinary example of clay animation at its best. Colorful and smoothly constructed, the picture rivals 1993's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" as the strongest use of basic claymation seen in a feature film.
Like so many animated films with animals, the chickens are humanized to the point where they act and speak like people, but screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick goes one step further and allows you to respect and care about the likable characters and their plight. Unlike "Titan A.E.," which contained some of the most bland voice-over work in recent memory, everyone in the cast of "Chicken Run" fits their characters to a tee, and clearly believe in the project. Julia Sawalha is charming as the savvy Ginger, and Mel Gibson equips himself with all of the cool swagger and self-optimism that characterizes the memorable Rocky, Ginger's potential love interest. Finally, Miranda Richardson is convincing as the dastardly Mrs. Tweedy, who looks and sounds reminiscent of Margaret Hamilton, as the Wicked Witch of the West, in 1939's "The Wizard of Oz."
With this year's animated releases, it seems that the tendency to turn every film of its type into a Disney-style musical has finally run its course, and rightfully so. While there is no doubt that 1989's "The Little Mermaid" and 1991's "The Beauty and the Beast" are great films, "Chicken Run," just like the "Toy Story" movies, excels in its involvement of the story because it does not require its characters to break out into song, and, rather, contains only background music to simply set the tone.
At a fast 85 minutes (about the norm for a big-screen animated picture), "Chicken Run" whizzes right by, and if there is a complaint to be had, it is that the film is over just a little too quickly. By tacking on a few extra minutes, the supporting chickens could have been developed more strongly. This is a small qualm, however, as "Chicken Run" is a family film full of wonder and excitement. It may also even have the power to make you think twice the next time you run through the drive-thru at your local KFC.
©2000 by Dustin Putman