Wednesday June 21, 2000

     As the owner and eminence grise of Tweedy's Egg Farm, the autocratic Mrs. Tweedy thinks she knows chickens. "They don't plot, they don't scheme, they are not organized," she tells her (inevitably) hen-pecked husband. "Apart from you, they are the stupidest creatures on the planet." Or so she, and the rest of us, believe.
     Along with its virtues as a delightful example of clay animation, "Chicken Run" also exposes a previously hidden world of poultry behavior. Before our disbelieving eyes, a pageant of jeopardy, romance and rescue unfolds. Chickens yelling, "She's gonna blow," chickens jitter-bugging to the classic "Flip Flop and Fly," chickens creating the kind of rousing action finale John Woo would relish. It's enough to make you swear off fricassee for life.
     If anyone could provide this service, it would have to be Britain's foremost animator, Nick Park. The winner of three short-film Oscars ("The highest Oscar-to-output ratio," one minute-counting journalist has calculated, "in the history of motion pictures"), this is a man who knows his animals.
     Park won his first Oscar for "Creature Comforts," deadpan interviews with hyper-articulate zoo animals. Then came the Wallace and Gromit films about a dog smarter than most men. One such adventure, "The Wrong Trousers," even has a chicken in a key role. (He's not really a chicken, as it turns out, but rather a penguin deviously pretending to be a chicken--but it's the thought that counts.)
     Now Park and his Aardman Animation partner and co-director Peter Lord have put chickens front and center where they belong with this gleeful parody of prison and escape movies. No one who remembers "Stalag 17" will have to guess at the number that's on the front of the hen house, and no veteran of "The Great Escape" will fail to recognize the contours of the farm, complete with barbed wire fencing, barking dogs, and a suspicious Mr. Tweedy checking the locks and muttering about what the chickens are up to.
     Hens and roosters may be unlikely heroes for an action adventure film, but Park, Lord and writer Karey Kirkpatrick have given "Chicken Run" the unmistakable hallmarks of the charming and clever style that turned Wallace and Gromit into great favorites over here as well as in Britain.
     Simultaneously understated and hang-loose, the humor in "Chicken Run" is genial and playful, able to treat the wildest concepts with total seriousness. This film is also much the funnier for being site-specific: Though no one, not even the smallest child, will have any trouble following the plot, the use of Britishisms like "you old sausage" and "give it over" add unmistakably to the comic flavor.
     The reason Mr. Tweedy (voiced by Tony Haygarth) is assiduously checking those locks is that one of his hens is addicted to escape attempts. That would be Ginger (Julie Sawalha of "Absolutely Fabulous"), jaunty as the neck scarf she wears. Believing that "there's a better place out there," Ginger is determined not only to break herself out, but also to free all the hens who live under the gloomy threat of death (as the pigs do in "Babe") if they don't produce.
     Ginger's accomplices include Mac (Lynn Ferguson), the mechanical genius, as well as Nick (Timothy Spall) and Fletcher (Phil Daniels), a completely funny pair of conniving black marketeer rats, always aghast at the hens' attempt to pay them in, yes, chicken feed. Even less focused is Babs ("Little Voice's" Jane Horrocks), who treats Ginger's confinements in solitary as the equivalent of a holiday. "It's nice," she says vacantly, "to get a bit of time by yourself."
     Dropping in, literally, on this self-described "group of rather desperate chickens" is the American rooster Rocky Roads (wonderfully done by Mel Gibson), a confident Rhode Island Red who's done "that whole barnyard thing" and now considers himself something of a "Lone Free Ranger."
     Much to the disgust of resident rooster Fowler (Benjamin Whitrow), an RAF veteran who mutters the classic World War II British jibe at Yanks ("overpaid, oversexed, over here"), Rocky, who claims to have had considerable experience in the area, agrees to teach the hens to fly.
     Though he and Ginger don't get along (he insists on calling her "Dollface" and considers her so tough, she's "the first chick I ever met with the shell still on"), they have to cooperate because the devious Mrs. Tweedy (the letter-perfect Miranda Richardson) has come up with a scheme so evil it makes everyone in the barnyard quake.
     Making what Park and company have accomplished here even more impressive is how labor-intensive clay animation's stop-motion technique is. The Plasticine models have to be changed frame by frame, with 24 frames making up but a single second of on-screen time.
     But though hundreds of people were employed creating "Chicken Run," with as many as 30 different sets operating at the same time, the film never loses its priceless stamp of individuality. Reduced to its essence, this is a joke told by a person, not a corporation--and that makes all the difference.


Chicken Run, 2000. G. DreamWorks Pictures in association with Pathe presents an Aardman Production. Directors Peter Lord & Nick Park. Producers Peter Lord, David Sproxton, Nick Park. Executive producers Jake Eberts, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Rose. Screenplay by Karey Kirkpatrick, based on an original story by Peter Lord & Nick Park. Music by John Powell & Harry Gregson-Williams. Supervising director of photography Dave Alex Riddett. Editor Mark Solomon. Supervising animator Loyd Price. Production designer Phil Lewis. Art director Tim Farrington. Model production designer Jan Sanger. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. Mel Gibson as Rocky. Julia Sawalha as Ginger. Miranda Richardson as Mrs. Tweedy. Jane Horrocks as Babs.