Chicken Run (2000)
Looking for a summer blockbuster with laughs, romance and edge-of-your-seat action? Well the answer lies where you least expect it in Dreamwork's animated Chicken Run, a delightfully rousing film about efforts of a group of chickens imprisoned on an egg farm to escape their inevitable fate that had this viewer's audience cheering even before the openingcredits Chicken Run has all the ingredients and evens boasts a bonafide A-list star in Mel Gibson, but of course he's rendered in clay. Gibson voices the character of Rocky the Flying Rooster, an escaped circus performer, who is propelled into the world of Tweedy's Egg Farm and the flock of men-starved British hens penned within. The only chicken not taken in by the suave American is the resourceful and determined Ginger (Voiced by Absolutely Fabulous's Julia Sawalha,) whose countless escape attempts have landed her in solitary confinement more times then she can count. But Ginger and Rocky strike a deal: Ginger will hide Rocky from both the circus lackeys and from the farm's proprietors, the slow-witted Mr. Tweedy (Tony Haygarth) and his heartless, money-minded wife (Miranda Richardson,) in exchange for his help teaching the chickens to fly. Of course, Rocky doesn't know how to fly but strings the chickens along until their situation becomes dire when Mrs. Tweedy purchases a machine that turns chickens into chicken pies.
The first feature length effort from stop-motion studio Aardman Films, Chicken Run is co-directed by Aardman founder Peter Lord and Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park, but despite the joint credit the film has all the earmarks of being Park's brainchild, from the character design to the action-oriented plot. Park has had an extraordinary animation career, winning an Oscar for best animated short for every film he's made save for A Grand Day Out, but that's only because he lost to himself. In fact, Chicken Run is a direct expansion of the setup used in Park's last film A Close Shave in which Wallace and Gromit helped a flock of sheep escape certain death at the hands of a diabolical machine. The new film exchanges chickens for sheep but features the same brilliant personification of animal characters and a love for gadgetry that make the Wallace and Gromit films so enchanting. Stop-motion animation is an extremely painstaking process that requires each clay model to be moved in nearly every frame of film. The method has been used primarily for special effects, from 1933's King Kong to the films of Ray Harryhausen, until the success of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas popularized the form as a viable feature length medium. But Lord and Park have made it their aim to take stop-motion to another level by complicating every setup with numerous characters, elaborate camera moves and intricate, fast-paced action sequences which recreate live-action to an astounding degree. This technical mastery coupled with some of the most exquisite character animation to be found either in clay or on paper make Chicken Run an extraordinary achievement.
But the accolades don't end there. Chicken Run features a superbly plotted script by Karey Kirkpatrick, from a story by Lord and Park, that seamlessly mixes humor, drama, suspense and action. Aiding Kirkpatrick's words are the deft vocal characterizations of Sawalha, Gibson, Richardson and solid supporting cast headed by Benjamin Whitrow as Flowler, the stately and stuck-up resident rooster, Imedla Staunton (Sense and Sensibility) as Bunty, the prolific egg hatcher and Lynn Ferguson as Mac, the Scottish inventor. Timothy Spall (Topsy-Turvy) and Phil Daniels (Quadrophenia) offer nice comic turns as Nick and Fetcher, the rat duo who can obtain almost anything, but Jane Horracks (Little Voice) steals every scene as the endearingly dim and plump Babs who is blissfully unaware of the danger they're all in. The set design, lighting and cinematography are also exemplary. With nods to The Great Escape and Stalag 17, Chicken Run envisions the egg farm as a miniature prisoner of war camp replete with identical barrack-like coops surrounded by mud and an impenetrable barb-wire fence. The only outlets for Ginger and her pals are the panoramic evening vistas filmed in exquisite overheads. Lord and Park keep their direction tight, beautifully constructing complex sequences with expert pacing and a keen eye for detail. Chicken Run is bound to join the ranks of recent children's classics like Babe and Toy Story and should garner Lord and Park another Oscar nomination even if they don't get the chance to go to the podium this time around.