Chicken Run (2000)

D: Peter Lord, Nick Park
S: Voices of Mel Gibson, Julia Sawalha

Entertaining animated feature from Aardman animations, the creators of Wallace & Gromit, which lacks the gentle charm of its predecessors, but more or less holds together over the longer running time with the benefit of good vocal performances and technical ingenuity. The plot is really more of a pitch: The Great Escape with chickens. Essentially it concerns the efforts of a group of battery hens (led by one voiced by Julia Sawalha) to escape from a farm before the money-grubbing farmer's wife (voiced by Miranda Richardson) turns them into chicken pies. Their hopes are pinned on an American rooster (voiced by Mel Gibson (Payback, The Patriot)) who seems to be able to fly. Visual gags aping famous moments from the classic prison break movie abound, including the inevitable 'cooler' scene. The film also plays upon the US/UK dynamic which informed Sturges' film and many others before and since, and there is plenty of playful antagonism and sneaking respect on both sides which eventually results in a partnership which saves the day.

In one sense, relying on well-worn character and narrative dynamics like these was a clever conceit. It made the film easy to pitch and more likely to appeal to a broad audience familiar with the basics. In another sense though, it is disappointingly lacking in real invention, certainly by comparison with the Wallace & Gromit shorts. Few will complain about the absence of imagination though, because the plot works well enough to connect a series of generally harmless and often quite funny gags, the animated characters are fun to watch, and there is a rollicking climax which calls to mind the finale of A Close Shave ; the short made, apparently, to demonstrate that Aardman could pull off certain types of action scenes.

The three-dimensional claymation style of the film is a welcome break from both traditional and computer drawn animated features, and gives the animators a lot of freedom to play with real-world spaces. The character animators have worked hard to give the chickens several facial expressions, and these are applied to good effect to mix drama and humour throughout. Yet somehow there is nothing here to match the wonderfully expressionless Feathers McGraw from The Wrong Trousers, whose character was conveyed mostly through body movement. The character design on the whole in the film is unsurprising. It works well enough in the context of the plot, trundling out several hardy British housewife caricatures with matching

costume design and props (Jane Horrocks (Little Voice) voices a plump, clueless, knitting chicken obsessed with holidays), but, like everything else, just lacks that creative spark it needs to bring it fully to life. The best characters are a pair of cockney rats who supply the chickens with equipment for their escape plans, for a modest profit of course.

There is always something to admire and applaud in terms of technique, with nice lighting effects and production design perfectly capturing the style of the genre. The action scenes are handled well and there is both humour and style in the way in which the entire feature has been put together. The pacing is a little slow at first, mostly methodically stepping from gag to gag to get to set up the basic details, and though it picks up before the end, it never quite gets as energetic as one feels it probably should have and obviously wanted to.

Disappointingly, the film may be best suited to a younger audience. Adults will find less richness here than in previous Aardman shorts (including the hilarious Creature Comforts and subsequent television advertisements for British Gas), less to smile quietly about before the sucker punch of the 'big gag' comes in. This film is mostly 'big gags'. It is always obvious, rarely surprising, and though this makes it easy viewing and the film is perfectly good entertainment, one can't but feel just a little bit let down. Kids, however, should lap it up (which is not to say the film is condescending or that kids aren't capable of picking up on more subtle humour), and if adults can lay aside the high expectations that previous Aardman films have generated, it fills a corner. It's meant to be fun and it is: it's just not quite as much fun as we had hoped it would be.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.