This hasn't been a good movie summer for kids or their parents, which makes "Chicken Run" such a welcome relief.
A delightful action adventure executed almost entirely with Plasticine, pluck and a lot of imagination, "Chicken Run" is that rare kids' movie that may be even more entertaining for its intended audience's adult companions.
"Chicken Run" isn't just chock-full of references to classic prison-break movies and some witty inside Hollywood jokes, but is filled with a secret ingredient sadly missing from its super-digitized, merchandise-driven counterparts: heart.
It's directed by Nick Park, whose clay-animated characters Wallace and Gromit are beloved by many in-the-know households, and Peter Lord, who founded Aardman Animations, the world's pre-eminent clay animation studio.
"Chicken Run" concerns a hen named Ginger (voiced with peppery spirit by Julia Sawalha, from the British TV series "Absolutely Fabulous") who resides on Tweedy's Egg Farm, a barb-wired fortress of avian oppression. Unlike her more complacent peers, Ginger is determined to break out of Tweedy's, even though each of her efforts results in being thrown into solitary confinement. But Ginger's dreams are answered one day when a charismatic Rhode Island Red named Rocky (Mel Gibson) is catapulted into her life.
Convinced he can teach her and her suffering sisters how to fly, Ginger persuades Rocky to stay at Tweedy's and help with their Big Breakout. This he does, although the Tweedys, especially the evil Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson), might shove them all into chicken-pot-pie ovens if they're too late.
Right off the bat, Park and Lord make it clear that "Chicken Run" will not only be an example of their prodigious imaginations, but an affectionate homage to all the great prison-break movies that have gone before it. "The Great Escape," which starred Steve McQueen, is probably the most often-referenced, followed closely by "Stalag 17," whose gadgetry and dark comedy have inspired many scenes here (Ginger and her troops happen to bunk in Coop 17). Indeed, astute film buffs will no doubt see even more subtle nods; there's a Scottish science whiz whose Coke-bottle glasses give her more than a passing resemblance to Dustin Hoffman in "Papillon."
If the subtleties of "Chicken Run" will gratify adult filmgoers, the charm of its characters, as well as its ripping good story, will keep the kids engrossed. Watching these wildly imaginative characters, meticulously fashioned out of clay and just as meticulously moved, frame by frame, is to be reminded that no amount of computer technology can replace the magical emotional transaction that happens when animated creatures become real.
Park and Lord have created a lively and vivid cast of characters, from the spunky Ginger (a terrific proto-feminist heroine) to the careful Mac, from the slightly dotty and constantly knitting Babs (Jane Horrocks), to a couple of wily rats (Timothy Spall and Phil Daniels) who provide much of the movie's comic relief.
The best part of "Chicken Run," though, is its overall visual tone, which has a handmade, vintage look worthy of an instant classic. Park and Lord have made sure to leave some rough edges intact, reminding viewers that each character was fashioned by someone's hand, with tender loving care.
It's a feeling that translates to every improvised gadget, from Babs' doornail knitting needles to a spectacular flying contraption powered by egg beaters and chicken power.
In mining a rich and imaginative vein of the past, Park and Lord have made a bold claim for animation's future.
(Note to parents: Although much of the action in the G-rated "Chicken Run" is comic in nature, there is one scene involving the beheading of a chicken and a few hair-raising moments in a chicken-pot-pie machine.)
Starring the voices of Julia Sawalha, Mel Gibson, Miranda Richardson, Jane Horrocks
Directed by Nick Park and Peter Lord
Released by Dreamworks Pictures
Running time 82 minutes
Sun Score ***