Clay Animation Goes Big
"Wallace and Gromit" Creators Work Comic Wonders
By Cole Smithey
Peter Lord and Nick Park, the creators of "Wallace and Gromit," have crafted a devilishly clever clay animation feature film that is thoroughly British in its humor. A band of hyper kinetic European chickens, imprisoned in a Stalag-type egg farm run by a tyrannical husband and wife team, struggle to escape with the questionable aid of a cocky American rooster named Rocky (voiced by Mel Gibson). Rocky is a circus-performing rooster who is inexplicably able to fly, or so it seems. It only follows that Rocky should be able to teach the fat little egg-laying chicks to get airborne long enough to escape over the barbed wire fence that keeps them on a course with early death when they stop producing enough eggs.
Beyond implications about animal cruelty in food processing farms, "Chicken Run" pokes fun at cheer-for-the-hero escape stories, and the very cliché of the American male hero. The chickens trapped on Mrs. Tweedy’s (voiced by Miranda Richardson) Yorkshire poultry farm wouldn’t stand a chance of ever escaping were it not for their fearless leader Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha). Ginger rifles the group through every escape scenario she can imagine before landing on the idea of going over the fence instead of under. When Rocky (the American "lone free ranger" rooster) crashes into camp, it seems like the answer to Ginger’s plans for the freedom of her flock and also for her romantic heart. Nonetheless Rocky is more of a motivational speaker than a liberator of hens. Little facts about chickens, and roosters not being able to lay eggs, are clarified in the funniest of ways.
When Mrs. Tweedy discovers an ad for a chicken pie-manufacturing machine that promises to make her a bundle in cash, it gives the movie a centerpiece comedy sequence that rivals anything of the most knee-slapping scenes from Billy Wilder to Mel Brooks. The hapless Ginger falls into grave danger of becoming the next day’s chicken pie as Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy test out their monstrously large cooking and packaging contraption. There are slippery slides, gravy shooting spray guns, mixed vegetables, and a heck of a lot of heat from oven burners that Ginger ends up dodging from conveyor belt to cardboard box.
"Chicken Run" is a classy melding of story ideas from movies like "The Great Escape" (1963), "Cool Hand Luke" (1967), and even Charlie Chaplin’s "Modern Times" (1936). It’s easy to take for granted the painstaking process of "frame-at-a-time" filmmaking that clay animation requires when you're watching "Chicken Run." The filmmakers have done such a picturesque job of seamlessly blending flawless set and figure design with story and character. Brought to the big screen by a large crew of inspired animators and modelmakers, "Chicken Run" multiplies the well-rounded effect of "Wallace and Gromit" by a hundred-fold. Where it was possible for an audience to get bogged down by the somber color scheme of "Wallace and Gromit," and its not-quite-lifelike-enough clay design, "Chicken Run" compensates with a crowd of quirky chickens capable of acting like real chickens when the farmers are snooping.
Kids' G-rated movies are just as important to the summer season as the string of Hollywood blockbusters that rarely live up to audience expectations. "Chicken Run" is every bit as ridiculous as the title suggests, and the movie carries with it a look and style that, while referencing a tradition of escape movies, surprises with its ingenuity and cheeky brand of British satire.
Rated G. 84 mins. (B+) (Four Stars)
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