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Poultry in motion

[DreamWorks Pictures]
The Great Chicken Escape: Frenzied fowl rule the rule the roost in Chicken Run, a delightful, G-rated summer treat that shows off the wonders of stop-motion animation while sending up some of Hollywood’s best prisoner-of-war films. Mel Gibson is the voice of Rocky the Rooster and Julia Sawalha is Ginger, the indomitable chicken, who -- horrors! -- are on their way to becoming chicken pot pie, above.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 23, 2000

Cleverly conceived and painstakingly produced, Chicken Run soars with the sheer excellence of stop-motion animation - and some fine legwork by Ginger the chicken and Rocky the rooster.

Chicken Run is a delicious comedy inspired by The Great Escape and Stalag 17 with a dash of Schindler's List. An egg farm is exaggerated into a concentration camp for laying hens hatching plans for escape. One brave chicken named Ginger leads the good fight like Steve McQueen with feathers.

Nobody crosses any roads, but that's just about the only joke ignored by the script.

This clever idea was cooked up by Nick Park and Peter Lord, creators of several celebrated Claymation and stop-motion animated shorts for their Aardman Animation studio. Park has won three Oscars for his work, two for the adventures of Wallace and Gromit, classic examples of Brit wit and model mobility.

The process looks great stretched to feature length with DreamWorks' financial support. After you finish laughing at the movie's antics, consider the intricacies of creating that action.

All movements in characters, sets and backgrounds are formed by posing clay, rubber or foam models for a camera shot, then slightly bending them into position for the next shot. Models of differing dimensions are constructed for various camera angles. Keeping everything fluid is painstaking work at 24 frames per second, especially in crowded scenes.

The result is as invigorating to the animation genre as Disney's computerized dinosaurs and toys, with the added valor of requiring more labor.

Marvel at the procedure, or simply sit back and enjoy the ingenious humor. Above all else, Chicken Run is a grand time at the movies, smartly written for all ages to enjoy. Like Babe and Toy Story, the film immediately announces that something special is happening here.

[DreamWorks Pictures]
Ginger (voice of Julia Sawalha, center) demonstrates her latest escape plan with the help of her captive roostmates in the charming Chicken Run.

Not many live-action adventures display the nimble editing of Chicken Run's opening sequence. Tweedy's Chicken Farm is quickly established as a dangerous place as Ginger attempts a series of escapes. Each try ends with Ginger banished to "the hole," a garbage receptacle. Then it's back to the coop and a hidden drawing board for the next scheme.

Ginger dreams of a better place where hens can live without fear of frying. The situation becomes more urgent when Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy purchase a chicken pie-making machine. Egg production is dropping and the farm is losing money, so this is the solution.

'Chicken Run' is feather in their caps
The original chicken joke may have been hatched at dinner
Literally out of the blue comes Rocky the rooster, sailing through the sky as chickens aren't supposed to. Rocky is cocky, brandishing a circus poster billing him as the world's only flying rooster. Ginger convinces him to teach the hens to fly to save their skins. Chicken Run becomes an ingenious race against time and evolution, looking goofy and sounding smart.

Mel Gibson does a nice send-up of his rogue roles with references to Braveheart and Lethal Weapon. A little overeager perhaps, but Gibson isn't very subtle in live-action work, either. The twist is that Rocky doesn't save the day. That honor is left to Ginger, voiced by Julia Sawalha (Absolutely Fabulous), one of the juiciest female protagonists on screen lately.

Sawalha does a superb job in the role, very aware of the false front of Ginger's bravery. She doesn't make the role a distressed damsel or a tough old bird but something satisfyingly in the middle. Makes a viewer want to see what Sawalha could do with a flesh-and-blood film opportunity.

[DreamWorks Pictures]
Financial pressures on the farm force the Tweedys to resort to extreme measures.
Miranda Richardson provides icy menace as Mrs. Tweedy, perfectly matching the ghoulish look of the character. Tony Haygarth is comfortably dumb as Mr. Tweedy, the only person who suspects those chickens are up to something. Among supporting chickens, Jane Horrocks' ditsy Babs and Benjamin Withrow's stuffy British war veteran are tops in the pecking order.

Chicken Run is more than just puns and silly expressions, though. Park and Lord devise several terrific action sequences, including Ginger and Rocky's treacherous trip through the pie machine and a daredevil finale. Crafty references to The Great Escape abound, from Ginger's eyes in close up, squinting at spotlights, to her passing time in solitary confinement by tossing a cabbage against the wall. They're amusing, even if you haven't seen McQueen doing it.

But that's because chickens are inherently funny, like nature's idea of a very practical joke. Park and Lord have just improved the old rubber chicken gag, making it movable, turning it into something closer to who we are and what we know as humans. The jokes and yolks are on us.

Chicken Run

  • Grade: A
  • Directors: Nick Park, Peter Lord
  • Cast: Voices of Mel Gibson, Julia Sawalha, Miranda Richardson, Jane Horrocks, Timothy Spall, Tony Haygarth
  • Screenplay: Karey Kirkpatrick
  • Rating: G; mild violence
  • Running time: 83 min.

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