Chicken Run

(© 2000 Dreamworks LLC. All rights reserved.)

M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   R O B E R T   H U N T

As much as I've admired Nick Park's short films (the justly acclaimed "Wallace and Gromit" series ), I had doubts that his unique style, with its children's-board-book design and pop-eyed, oval-faced characters, could sustain an entire feature. Park's films play on a contrast between simple, comical visuals and settings that border on banality: the soft-spoken Wallace, a Northern Englander with a fondness for home-made inventions, thinks nothing of building a space-ship or encountering a criminal mastermind (a penguin!). But he can be driven to ecstatic exclamation by a plate of cheese. The zoo animals in the Academy Award-winning "Creature Comforts" sit in their cages chattering about their surroundings like suburban cottage dwellers. Park's films are much better at finding new ways of looking at the mundane than at telling stories.

Any doubts about Park's long-term storytelling abilities may be put to rest; his first feature Chicken Run, co-directed with Peter Lord (to set the record straight, Lord is the co-founder of Britain's Aardman studio; Park began as an Aardman employee but quickly became its leading animator and creative influence) is an unqualified success, an animated milestone that bears comparison with the Toy Story films or the debut of the Muppets. The elements that work best in Park's short films -- the eye for detail, expert comic timing, and deadpan absurdity -- have been multiplied in scale to create a film of inexhaustibly rich humor and imagination. Run short of ideas? Park and Lord have packed so much into Chicken Run that multiple viewings are almost required.

(© 2000 Dreamworks LLC. All rights reserved.)

Ingeniously reworking such prisoner-of-war films as The Great Escape, Stalag 17, and The Bridge on the River Kwai, Chicken Run takes place behind the barbed wire fences of Mrs. Tweedy's Egg Farm, where a valiant hen named Ginger hatches a series of escape plans and does her best to keep up morale before she and her fellow inmates are turned into pot pies. Surrounded by an assortment of genre stalwarts, from the rooster Fowler, a stiff-upper-lip British officer, to Mac, the bespectacled engineer who develops the makeshift hardware for Ginger's plans. When an American rooster named Rocky (voiced by Mel Gibson) glides into the camp with a broken wing, Ginger begins her most elaborate scheme yet, convinced that the cocky new arrival can teach the portly poultry how to fly. (Yes, I know that roosters can't fly, and the film's twist of an explanation actually adds a bit of depth to Rocky's animated character. )

Using plastic puppets less than a foot tall and richly detailed sets (the British fondness for candy tins and other packaging proves to be a useful visual motif), Park and Lord and their collaborators have stretched the limits of figure animation with elaborate camera work, evocative lighting, and a few extraordinary set-pieces, such as a rescue sequence from within the pie-making machinery that puts Indiana Jones to shame. This is as far removed from the Wallace and Gromit films, for all their charm, as Pinocchio is from "Steamboat Willie." Karey Kirkpatrick's script is no less inventive, providing verbal humor to match the imagery, albeit on a notably daft level filled with puns and non sequiturs and playing on the Aardman technique of putting ordinary, down-to-earth dialogue in the mouths of wide-eyed cartoons. (My favorite character was the blithely dim Babs, who rarely puts down her knitting long enough to acknowledge the horrible conditions within the camp; when a chicken is taken off to slaughter, or returns from solitary confinement, she cheerfully asserts that they're "on holiday.")

Clay and model animation is a difficult process, and perhaps an archaic one, already outdated by the advances of computer graphics. Filmmakers can now bring a new level of three-dimensional realism to any animated figure, from the prehistoric heroes of the current Dinosaur to the vast, faceless troops of The Phantom Menace. The figures in Chicken Run are, by comparison, endearingly clunky, with a physical presence and depth unmatched by strictly digital creations. A film like Dinosaur is a trick on the eye, fooling the viewer into believing that the camera has captured a particularly well-trained batch of creatures (who somehow happened to escape extinction). Chicken Run captures the viewer by triggering a suspension of disbelief, zapping you into a "Looney Tunes" territory where anything can happen and laws of nature were made to be broken. The technology of Dinosaur impresses, but the artistry of Chicken Run delights.

[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]



Text: (© 1999 Rhunt/film/wire.)

Photos: (© 2000 Dreamworks L.L.C. All rights reserved.)