Chicken Run

Something fowl is happening on the Tweedy Chicken Farm, and the hens don’t like it. Birds of a feather may flock together, but the ingenious stars of “Chicken Run” have something more daring in mind. Thanks to the pluck of one hen named Ginger, the chickens are about to stage one of the most daring escapes since Steve McQueen jumped his motorcycle over a fence in “The Great Escape.”

Chicken Run. These animated chickens don?t lay an egg“The Great Escape” is just but one of the films that directors Peter Lord and Nick Parks send up (and then dress down) in “Chicken Run,” an animated delight that’s as savory as a bucket from the Colonel. The first full-length feature from the creators of the Oscar-winning “Wallace & Gromit” animated shorts is also one the year’s best films.

It’s impossible not to fall under the spell of this charming comedy which skillfully blends animation and scalpel sharp humor to create an experience that everyone can enjoy and appreciate. Kids will absolutely love the simplicity of the moment, while adults will find the clever puns and topical references refreshing and funny.

“Chick Run” takes place on an English farm in the 1950s, but everything about the film suggests a German prison camp during World War II. The hen houses look like barracks, which are surrounded by barb wire and guarded by two vicious dogs. At the other end of the leash is Mr. Tweedy (voice of Tony Haygarth), hen-pecked husband of Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson).

Despite assurances from his wife, Mr. Tweedy suspects that the chickens are organizing. His suspicions are constantly raised by the numerous escapes of Ginger (Julia Sawalha), a determined hen whose attempts buy her a week in the cooler. What Tweedy doesn’t know is that the chickens are indeed organized, and hope to flee the coop on a wing and a prayer.

Their prayers are answered when an American Rhode Island rooster named Rocky (Mel Gibson) flies into their compound. Rocky’s claim to fame is that he’s a flying rooster, which may or may not be true. Doesn’t matter to Ginger, who sees Rocky as the chicken’s salvation. His arrival couldn’t have come at a better time, even if he did injure his wing.

Fed up with the poverty of being an egg farmer, Mrs. Tweedy decides to make and sell chicken pot pies. The decision couldn’t please Mr. Tweedy more, whose paranoia seems to be getting the best of him. The chickens don’t have much time, so the moment Rocky’s wing is better, it’s do or die.

Writer Karey Kirkpatrick, working from an original story by Lord and Park, has done his homework. There’s a lot of history at play here, and Kirkpatrick honors it with respect and some good natured ribbing. Anyone familiar with “The Great Escape” and “Stalag 17” will appreciate the parallels between the POW’s and the chickens.

When Ginger is sent to the cooler, she passes her time tossing a ball against the wall. The main hen house is #17, while Ginger’s escape attempts including tunneling. It’s all here and more. The jokes fly at you faster than the SST, while the visual gags are so extensive you must see the film more than once to take it all in.

Even though they are plasticine animated characters, you not only warm up to the chickens, you actually begin to believe in their plight. When Ginger is picked as the first chicken to test the new pie baking machine (shades of Rube Goldberg), Rocky swings into action to save her. We sit on the edge of our seat as the rescue attempt becomes more and more harrowing, until finally it’s almost impossible to take.

The remainder of “Chicken Run” has that same effect. You totally buy into the premise, and find yourself cheering on the chickens. Directors Lord and Park create this magic by making the chickens more human than the humans. Indeed, Mr. & Mrs. Tweedy (and the dogs) are cartoonish. The hens take on human qualities that transcend their animated roots.

Gibson injects just the right amount of rascal into Rocky, who brags about being the Lone Free Ranger but is actually on the run from a traveling circus. Julia Sawalha, always a delight on the BBC’s “Absolutely Fabulous,” is sweet and sincere as Ginger. Jane Horrocks has lots of fun with Babs, who knits when she’s nervous.

The characters are all recognizable, from Benjamin Whitrow’s stuffy Fowler, who served with the RAF, to the resourceful rat duo of Nick (Timothy Spall) and Fetcher (Phil Daniels), who breathe new life into the old argument about the egg and the chicken (hang around after the credits for more).

Animation is always tricky, especially animation not geared towards 5 year-old children. The trick is giving the images enough depth to make them interesting. Park and Lord and their amazing team of animators avoid this stumbling block by creating an animated film that is more alive than most live-action films. They fill every frame with detail after detail until you suspend disbelief and enter their world. Once there, everything they do seems appropriate and acceptable.

The technical teams complete the illusion, especially John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams’ rousing musical score that nails the genre perfectly. It’s the kind of score that demands your participation. It lures you into the personal moments, and pumps you up during the exciting ones.

Hopefully “Chicken Run” will be successful. I would love to see more of this type of animation and humor on the big screen. These chickens do the impossible: they never lay an egg!

Featuring the voice talents of Mel Gibson, Julia Sawalha, Jane Horrocks, Miranda Richardson, Tony Haygarth, Lynn Ferguson in a film directed by Peter Lord and Nick Parks. Rated G. 85 Minutes.

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