review by Carrie Gorringe, 23 June 2000
For those who
tend to associate animated films exclusively with the Disney studios
(and with its financial reach and talent base, it's an easy
association to make), the name of Aardman Animations might more
likely to conjure up images of anteaters than of some of the most
innovative animation to emerge in the last twenty years.
For just about that length of time, Aardman has been arguably
the most singular force, aside from Will Vinton and his California
Raisin commercials, in promoting the sorely-neglected genre of clay
animation. (the term "claymation" has been copyrighted by
Vinton, and therefore won't be used here to describe Aardman's
output). And, yes,
you’ve definitely seen some of the studio’s eye-popping output,
even if nothing comes immediately to mind: Peter Gabriel's
ground-breaking video for "Sledgehammer" and Oscar-winning
Wallace-and-Gromit outings such as A Grand Day Out (1992) and
The Wrong Trousers (1993) (both directed by Park and
co-produced by Lord) are among the best-known.
The real strength of Aardman has been its ability to meld the
strengths of clay animation – namely, its retention of its status
as a handicraft and the characters three-dimensionality, which is
always present and not having to be the result of audience
assumptions – along with subtly witty scripts.
By these criteria, Chicken Run can be described, with
no exaggeration, as the zenith of Park and Lord’s collaborations
The film opens on
a lugubriously lit, run-down farm belonging to the evil Mrs. Tweedy
(Richardson) and her milquetoast husband (Haygarth), and, for its
inmates, life here is nothing like the zany, bucolic world of The
Egg and I. The
chickens are obliged to undergo the arbitrary cruelty of a daily
"selection" and those who have not met their
egg-production quota are sent to the chopping block and from there
to the Tweedy's dining-room table.
The sinister historical analogy is deliberate; for these
chickens, Tweedy's Farm is a death camp.
One way or another, they are not getting out alive (can you
tell that co-director Park spent two summers on the line in a
chicken-processing plant?). Just
as Mrs. Tweedy has decided to liquidate the camp –- sorry, I mean
the farm -- in the name
of higher profits (having discovered that there is more money in pot
pies than in eggs), along flies Rocky the Rooster, whose
braggadocio-laced tales of daring in the air turn him into the Great
Feathered Hope. The
not-too-bashful bantam promises to help the chickens learn to fly.
It’s an unlikely possibility, since their exaggerated
endomorphic shapes and the idea of any of them taking flight are
mutually exclusive. Only
Ginger (Sawalha), the chickens' de facto leader, and the Colonel
Blimp-like Fowler (Whitrow) see through his transparently phony
training regimen. There are two questions by the film's mid-point:
can Ginger keep Mrs. Tweedy's porta-pot pie factory out of
commission long enough to get the remainder of her friends to
safety, and can she resist Rocky's charms while doing so?
is an effortlessly enjoyable film.
There's historical quotation for the film buffs:
the plot line consists of a broad parody of the
prison-camp-escape film (think of The Great Escape and Stalag
screenwriters throw out a direct quotation from Billy Wilder's film
between Mr. Tweedy and the chicken ringleader named Ginger at the
beginning just to set the ironic tone).
As mentioned earlier, the animation is top-notch. The
actors are having a ball with their characters.
There are some intense moments, but very few, and the ending,
suffused with color and optimism, is a worthwhile payoff. The only thing left to say is this: just go and see Chicken Run -- otherwise you’ll feel like a cluck.