“Chicken Run” marks a delightfully clever feature debut by Britain’s Aardman team of stop-motion animators that nonetheless doesn’t fly quite as high as their justly celebrated shorts or, for that matter, as far as the film’s feathered heroes. Technically superb and witty in an old-fashioned, veddy British way that will delight many adults but will sail over the heads of young audiences, Peter Lord and Nick Park’s long-awaited bigscreener will no doubt be embraced by critics as the classiest anthropomorphized animal film since the “Babe” series. Commercially, however, it looks more like an in-betweener, likely to attract a strong cult following but perhaps too sophisticated and dark as mass summer entertainment for kiddies.
Park has won three Oscars for best animated short, the first for “Creature Comforts” and the second two for the popular “The Wrong Trousers” and “A Close Shave,” both featuring the man-and-dog combo of Wallace and Gromit, who first appeared in “A Grand Day Out.” Wry humor with dark, threatening overtones is his hallmark, and these elements remain front and center here. For his part, Lord, Aardman co-founder and chairman, is a pioneer in clay-model animation and directed the Oscar-nominated shorts “Adam” and “Wat’s Pig,” in addition to many videos, commercials and other shorts.
In format, “Chicken Run” is like a World War II prison camp thriller in which the inmates plot various escape attempts before making a spectacular flight for freedom in the end. In this case, however, the cloistered ones are the hens at Tweedy’s Egg Farm, who either produce a constant flow of eggs or are served up at dinner. A dismal place of innumerable stalag-like hen houses surrounded by barbed wire, the compound is made especially worthy of escape by the stern rule of the implacably grim Mrs. Tweedy and her — ahem — seriously henpecked husband.
The mild-mannered, properly English, resignedly subservient mold of most of the hens is broken by Ginger, a feisty bird who dreams of wide open spaces and can’t let a day go by without a try at breaking out. Her unsuccessful efforts are duly rewarded by spells in solitary (a garbage bin), and pic tips its hat to the genre classic “The Great Escape,” both via the martial music of the early going and the gag of having Ginger bounce a ball against a wall to pass the time (other overt homage puts Ginger and her pals in Hut 17).
But everything changes when an upstart Yank literally falls into the hens’ midst. Rocky the Flying Rooster, the self-described “lone free-ranger,” has made his living being shot from a cannon at a circus. On the lam from his owner, Rocky takes convenient refuge on the farm and does nothing to discourage the idea that he can fly, which allows Ginger to pin all her hopes for a mass escape on Rocky’s teaching the girls how to get airborne.
At the same time, however, Mrs. Tweedy, fed up with the “minuscule profits” from eggs, decides to retool her operation and begin making chicken pies. Putting the hens on double rations to fatten them up quickly, she installs a mass-production oven and pie-maker, and the film’s great set piece is a perilous voyage Ginger and Rocky take through this infernal device, which threatens to grind, chop, encrust, bake and stamp them at every turn, like a lethal amusement-park ride. Motivated by their imminent demise to arrange their escape posthaste, the hens must rise to the occasion in spite of their disappointment over Rocky’s not being all they imagined him to be, and do so in a sort of Baron Munchausen-like finale that reps a literal flight of fancy.
To be sure, “Chicken Run” is always engaging, full of bright humor, marvelous stop-motion work with Plasticine figures, dramatic conflict and wonderfully nuanced characterizations. Latter attribute is particularly notable; as in the Wallace and Gromit shorts, it’s amazing how expressive of human emotions the filmmakers can make faces composed of such lifeless material. Indeed, the leading characters are given unusually fine shadings for animated creations, which is partly a tribute to the Aardman team’s finesse and partly due to the outstanding casting and performances.
Mel Gibson brings his expected energy and an antic, boisterous humor to the cocky Rocky, but the heart of the film is Julia Sawalha’s Ginger, a self-sufficient, sometimes officious gal who could probably escape by herself but whose deep concern for her fellow hens compels her to find a way to get everyone out. Jane Horrocks’ portly Babs perfectly evokes the complacent, accepting side of chicken life, Miranda Richardson deliciously dishes out Mrs. Tweedy’s evil in measured tones, and Benjamin Whitrow, playing an old bird who constantly recalls his glory days with the RAF, represents the film’s strongest link to English humor a couple of generations past.
Technical considerations aside, the quasi-historical situation, the mostly subtle quality of the comedy and the tenor of the dialogue in Karey Kirkpatrick’s adroit script give the picture a quaintly ’50s feel, which will charm some viewers and no doubt puzzle others. Putting a mild damper on the proceedings is the sometimes dour mood, which plausibly derives from the constant threat hovering over the birds but is also, unlike “Babe,” conveyed in dark visuals. The confining, prison-like setting, which is rarely left during the film, seems to have placed a sort of dramatic straitjacket on the filmmakers’ impulse (amply on view in their shorts) for nifty side trips and surprising digressions.
Although not a song-score musical, music plays an important part in “Chicken Run,” reinforcing the World War II-derived aesthetic and providing for the rousing dance number inside the hens’ quarters.