This is a great introduction for audiences unfamiliar with the wonderful work of Aardman Animation. It has all the familiar elements (the quirky British humor, the amusingly wide-mouthed stop-motion characters, the outlandish action escapades) that mark the best of Aardman’s short films, but the storytelling has been expanded and broadened to appeal to a broad audience of theatregoers. As such, the experience for long-time fans is a little bit like seeing an American film starring Jackie Chan: while the uninitiated around you are ooh-ing and ah-ing that they have “never seen anything like it before,” you sit back and realize that, although what you’re seeing is pretty good, it’s not quite up the standards of previous work. But of course, when that previous work includes three Oscar-winning short subjects (as is the case with co-director Nick Park’s work for Aardman), it’s hardly an insult to say that CHICKEN RUN is only “almost” as good.
Park’s work on CREATURE COMFORTS and the three Wallace and Gromit films (A GRAND DAY OUT, THE WRONG TROUSERS, and A CLOSE SHAVE) was marked by a certain intimate quality that relied on facial expressions and reaction shots to generate laughs; this approach was then contrasted with the big set pieces that pulled out all the stops. Co-director Peter Lord, on the other hand, showed a bit more of a tendency for suggesting an epic quality with his previous stop-motion work, and much of that style is in evidence here. It’s not enough to have one or two characters interacting; it has to be a room full of them, just to impress us with the sheer scale of the work. It’s not a bad approach; in fact, it achieves just what it sets out to do. But it does negate just a bit of the sparkle we’ve come to expect.
Park is also a supremely visual filmmaker; although CREATURE COMFORTS was dialogue driven, the majority of the characters in the Wallace and Gromit films do not talk, yet their expressions are more than adequate to bring them to life. Lord’s previous work, too, did not rely on dialogue for its impact, but CHICKEN RUN is loaded with dialogue, in order to help tell a feature length story. It’s not bad dialogue, but again, there is a sense of something having been lost. In previous Aardman films, there was always a perfectly exquisite visual punch line to top off each scene; while story points were being scored, the audience was also laughing along at the inventive gags and imaginative visuals. CHICKEN RUN, on the other hand, more often relies on the overall narrative thrust to maintain our interest, even when the individual scenes aren’t always popping out at us with clever bits of business.
Okay, that’s the bad news—which, again, can only be considered bad in comparison to previous work that most in the audience won’t have seen. The good news is that CHICKEN RUN is the most delightful piece of feature length animation to debut this summer. While TITAN A.E. and DINOSAUR feign adult sophistication with PG ratings, CHICKEN RUN outdoes both them both, hands-down. Sure, both TITAN and DINOSAUR have their flashes of violence and death, but it’s antiseptic movie violence that has no impact. Compare that with the thoroughly horrible death of Edwina in the early reel of CHICKEN RUN: it’s not graphically depicted, but the aura of doom is palpable, even depressing (one child was crying in the theatre during the press screening), and it sets the stage for the story that follows, for-shadowing what will happen to the other chicken if Ginger’s plans for escape fail.
What seems to be the answer to Ginger’s prayers arrives in the form of Rocky, an American rooster who can supposedly fly. He agrees to teach the others as soon as his broken wing mends, but we in the audience know better. (It turns out Rocky is a circus act, shot from a cannon, who landed by accident in the chicken farm. In one of the film’s many in-jokes, his first word, while sailing through the air, is a long, drawn-out “Frreeedom!”—an echo of Mel Gibson’s role in BRAVEHEART.) The story follows a fairly standard structure: the chickens get their hopes up; then they’re disappointed by the truth; finally, they manage to pull success from the jaws of defeat when Ginger concocts a new plan almost virtually at the last minute. Along the way, familiar imagery emerges that will be recognizable to fans of past Aardman work: for instance, Mrs. Tweedy’s chicken pie machine suggests the sheep mincing machine from A CLOSE SHAVE, and the airborne finally suggests Gromit’s flying scenes from the same film.
It’s a pleasing surprise that it is Ginger, not Rocky, who saves the day; although Gibson is the big name star, Ginger is the real protagonist, and the script thankfully let’s her succeed instead of relying on the leading man to bail her out (although, to be fair, he does help). This care with characterization is another element that sets CHICKEN RUN above its animated competition this season. The lead roles are well thought out, and the large supporting cast remains distinct, thanks to some well-defined personalities and voices.
The character designs are not quite as wonderful as one would have hoped (you won’t fall in love with the heroes as you have with Wallace and Gromit, and the villainous Mrs. Tweedy’s doesn’t quite strike fear into the heart with her looks, relying instead on Miranda Richardson’s delivery), but the cast does a great job, and an egg-headed character with a Scottish accent pays off big time with some STAR TREK related jokes when the chickens finally get off the ground.
As a long time fan of stop-motion, I had hoped that Aardman would hit a home run with their first feature-length film. I have to admit that that didn’t quite happen. Instead, we ended up with a double that a fast runner could stretch out to a triple, sliding in just beneath the throw from the outfield. Despite the small disappointments, the film is nevertheless filled with inventiveness and imagination, far outdistancing a disappointment like JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH. Let’s hope it becomes a huge success and allows Aardman to do the film we really want to see: a feature length adventure with Wallace and Gromit.
CHICKEN RUN(2000). Directed by Nick Park and Peter Lord. Written by Karey Kirkpatrick; story by Park & Lord; additional story, Randy Carwright. Voices: Mel Gibson, Jane Horrocks, Miranda Richardson, Phil Daniels, Timothy Spall, Julia Sawalha.