By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 23, 2000
The original chicken joke may have been hatched at dinner:
First caveman: "What taste like?"
Second caveman: "Me not know. Chicken not evolved yet."
Okay, maybe it didn't happen quite that way. But whoever initially looked at a chicken and thought of a punch line made history.
Many roads have been crossed since then. Advertising chickens tout the virtue of eating hamburgers. A rubber chicken is a comedy staple rivaled in endurance only by pie facials and whoopee cushions. Even Annie Hall, hailed recently as one of the funniest movies of all time, ends with a chicken joke.
Not to mention the vocabulary inspired by poultry, from henpecked husbands with clucking wives to nervy games of automotive chance. If chickens had lips, we would be missing one of our best ways of describing a sure thing. If they were courageous, we wouldn't have an insult for being afraid.
The next hallmark of chicken humor arrives in theaters today, the first full-length feature with poultry in starring roles. Even Foghorn Leghorn never got a big-screen opportunity like this.
Chicken Run is a delightful debut from Aardman Animation by way of DreamWorks, a financing and distribution deal comparable to the arrangement between Disney and Pixar Animation Studios. DreamWorks was impressed by Aardman's Nick Park and his three Oscars for animated short films, paying $253-million for five future films. Chicken Run is the first result of that alliance.
Which came first, the chickens or the DreamWorks nest egg?
"We had the idea several years ago and started developing it with another producer," Park said during a telephone interview. "That gave us a position of strength when we were dealing with DreamWorks.
"We just took them a very simple idea: We're going to do The Great Escape, but with chickens. That was all they needed to hear."
But, what is it about these barnyard animals that is so darn funny?
"Well, they're absurd from the outset," Park said. "The whole joy for us is taking an animal that are fairly goofy-looking, famous only for being cowardly, and making them into these great action heroes and romantic leads.
"I think the original pitch -- The Great Escape with chickens -- sums it up. The joy is that you can see why the two fit together. A chicken coop does look like something from an old war movie. Heroism and tragedy on one hand and, on the other hand, chickens. It's really a beautiful marriage."
Along the way, Park and his co-director, Peter Lord, hope to bring cinematic respect to the species.
"We were thinking that, in movies, chickens have had a really rough ride through the years," Lord said. "They've always been strictly extras, haven't they? When the car goes crashing through the farm, somebody throws chickens at the wheels. That has been the height of a chicken's career so far."
Chicken Run changes that image, giving distinct personalities to a flock of unlikely heroes through stop-motion animation, sharp writing and fine vocal performances. The prison-camp setting brings out the best rebellion in them, the way it did for Steve McQueen and William Holden when they played POWs in The Great Escape and Stalag 17, respectively.
References to those vintage movies are everywhere in Chicken Run. The filmmakers don't assume everyone will understand, nor do they believe it's necessary.
"We know these movies are ingrained in our minds, but we don't know how deep that goes for everybody else," Park said. "All you can do is, do what amuses you and know that somebody will pick it up. None of those jokes are structural at all. They're just another level of fun."
A couple of those wartime jokes in Chicken Run are open to interpretation.
One key plot twist involves the owners of Tweedy's Farm buying a chicken pie-making machine that will destroy the chicken population. The deadly contraption is photographed in imposing fashion that, along with the concentration-camp setting, brings to mind the gas chambers of the Holocaust.
"It's something we desperately didn't want to make jokes about, really. It's such a terrible subject," Lord said. "When we move on to the pie machine, I think we've moved on to James Bond territory. Mrs. Tweedy has become the evil mastermind with a plan to take over the Earth, that kind of thing."
Maybe so, but what about the hens bartering eggs for escape materials from a pair of black-market rats? Later, eggs are used as weapons during an escape attempt. Aren't those chickens sacrificing their children for personal gain?
Park and Lord responded with nervous laughter after an awkward silence:
"That's interesting," Park said. "Yes, that did occur to us. We thought of everything while making this film. You're actually the first person to mention that."
More hems and haws. "It, uh, doesn't bear thinking about, really," Park said, blithely denying the idea with Monty Python wit.
"I suppose it will pop into some people's heads," Lord injected. "I've always thought of eggs as an essential weapon. The fact that chickens lay eggs is sort of a joke in itself. There's something about the whole process, let's face it, that is like a big joke, coming out of their bum. I'm sure people don't think of that when they eat fried eggs."