|Chicken Run (Special Edition)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 21 November 2000|
The tale of plucky (but unplucked) hen Ginger (voice of Julia Sawalha) and her steely determination to free not just herself but all her friends from the chicken farm run by icy Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson) and doltish Mr. Tweedy (Tony Haygarth) is told straightforwardly and well. The screenplay by Karey Kirkpatrick is solidly developed, rigorously structured and highly satisfying. Though it's just the first step by Aardman into the field of feature movies, it shows that they have almost everything necessary in place right now. If it's not quite as rich as what Nick Park's fans might expect, if it's not quite up to the level of, say, Pixar's CGI movies, it's still very good, emotionally satisfying, very funny and superbly made.
Set at a seedy chicken farm in rural England (the time period is foggy), 'Chicken Run' immediately introduces us to determined heroine Ginger as she tries to lead a few other hens out of bondage and into freedom. But once again she's caught by Mr. Tweedy and tossed into a coal bin in lieu of solitary confinement; like Steve McQueen in 'The Great Escape,' she sullenly passes her time bouncing a ball off the walls. No sooner is she put back into the prison camp-like chicken enclosure than she tries to make another escape. And another, and another, and another, but no matter how ingenious the attempts, she's caught every time.
She concludes that instead of going under the chicken wire, she should go over it. But everyone knows chickens can't fly. Just then, however, a rooster flies by, but crashes into the weather vane and ends up in the coop with Ginger. When he recovers, he admits that as the poster that drifted down with him declares, he really is Rocky the Flying Rooster, fresh from a circus. Rocky Roads (Mel Gibson) is a brash, breezy American, who declares himself a lone free ranger, and wants to just get the heck out of there, despite all the hens going googly-eyed over him. But by threatening to turn him in to the circus people who are looking for him, the stern, demanding Ginger gets Rocky to agree to train all of the Tweedy farm chickens to learn to fly before he goes on his merry way. (Naturally, romance blossoms.)
The movie doesn't dodge the question of just what the chickens are for. At the beginning, it's an egg farm, but as Mrs. Tweedy says, when a hen doesn't lay, off with her head. Then things get grimmer; greedy Mrs. Tweedy wants more money, so she buys a huge Rube Goldberg-like device for the creation of chicken pies. Put a chicken in one end, add vegetables and gravy, and out come the "home made" pies at the other end. There's an exciting and suspenseful -- and funny -- sequence when Ginger and Rocky almost fall victim to the big tapocketapocketa machine.
In a movie, each moment counts, especially when you're shooting one frame at a time; that probably accounts for the careful way in which 'Chicken Run' is developed. It's almost, but not quite, leisurely at the beginning, with the quick, funny gags centering on the escape attempts.
Technically, the animation is fine, a bit jittery, perhaps; the motions aren't exactly life-like, but that's not the point. The designs are appealing, even if the chickens tend to be awesomely bottom-heavy. Even the two scrounging rats, Nick (Timothy Spayy) and Fetcher (Phil Daniels), are attractive in their own ratty way.
Neither in the Wallace and Gromit shorts nor here do Park and Lord show off technique for the reasons of spectacle; for them, stop-motion animation is a way of telling the kinds of stories they want to tell and they enjoy the technique for itself.
Mel Gibson does the brash, breezy voice for Rocky, but it's not a star turn by any means, nor is Rocky the hero or central character in the movie, although he does have the best tail feathers. The real hero is Ginger, and Sawalha provides a great all-British voice, plus a strong personality. She was the daughter, Saffy, on 'Absolutely Fabulous,' and was a great choice for the voice of Ginger.
The screenplay is by American Karey Kirkpatrick, who co-wrote 'The Rescuers Down Under' and 'James and the Giant Peach,' as well as the TV movie, 'Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves.' As with the animation, the dialog is not dazzling and showy; it's in the service of the story and the characters. Not to say, of course, that it's not also bright and funny much of the time.
'Chicken Run' is one of those movies that seems good while watching it -- but even better the more you think about it, so you will be hungry for another viewing just hours after the first. It's a warm, witty and wise movie about barnyard fowl, and we can always use more of those.
The DVD is selling well, and no wonder. Not only does it include the film in a fine, clear print, but an excellent documentary on the making of the picture, genial and informative. There is a second documentary, too, covering very much the same ground, but with some different footage. Only one of them needed to be included. The commentary track by Lord and Park is also amusing and informative.
The disc also includes a DVD-Rom game intended for kids, a few Easter eggs (what else?), and the screenplay. All in all, a good package for a good movie.