(2000) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Mel Gibson, Julia Sawalha, Miranda Richardson, Jane Horrocks, Imelda Staunton, Timothy Spall, Tony Haygarth, Benjamin Whitrow, Phil Daniels, Lynn Ferguson, John Sharian, Penelope Cruz. Directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park
From the studio that brought the amusing – nay, hysterically funny – “Wallace and Gromit” shorts comes this marvelously charming – and hysterically funny – modern-day retelling of The Great Escape.
Life on Tweedy’s Chicken Farm is bleak, indeed. Hens who don’t lay their daily quota of eggs end up on the chopping block, and eventually on the Tweedy’s dinner table. Ginger (Sawalha), a dare-I-say-it plucky little bird, dreams of better things; a paradise beyond the distant hills. Sadly, her escape plans always seem to go terribly awry, often due to the incompetence of her fellow fowl, and she winds up taking the rap for it and being sentenced to solitary for a few days.
Her fellow chickens are colorful and big-hearted, but don’t have a lot of material above the beak, if you get my drift. Still, they’re all behind her 100% (more or less), starting with the empty-headed, perpetually knitting Babs (Horrocks) to the stiff-upper-lip ex-RAF fryer…I mean, flyer…Fowler (Whitrow) and up to the feisty Bunty (Staunton).
Into the frying pan lands Rocky (Gibson) who flies into the pen quite unexpectedly. He is, as he puts it, the Lone Free Ranger, a true cock of the walk with a devil-may-care charm. In exchange for shelter (he’s on the lam from the circus he used to work in), he agrees to teach the cooped-up chickens how to fly ignoring the rather difficult obstacle that chickens can’t actually fly, aerodynamically speaking.
In the meantime, the bitter and mean-spirited Mrs. Tweedy (Richardson) has determined that egg production just doesn’t generate enough revenue to allow the Tweedys to do more than subsist. The solution is a monstrous chicken pie making machine. It’s simple, she tells her henpecked husband (Haygarth); “Chickens go in, pies come out.” The stalag has suddenly become a death camp.
There is a tremendous amount of wit and good-natured charm. The humor is a bit droll, and may go over the heads of kids that have been spoon-fed Rugrats, Pokémon and other truly wretched and poorly-drawn excuses for animation on the Cartoon Network. Still, the lil’ tykes will go for the panicky, somewhat silly chickens and the outlandish devices that Ginger and her penned-up mates come up with. Mel Gibson makes for a charming rogue. He’s carefree, cocky even but in the end he has a gizzard of pure gold.
Peter Lord and Nick Park, who produced, wrote, and directed Chicken Run, have a marvelous style. You get the distinct impression that these fellers both believe that their audience has at least half a brain cell in between them. They poke fun at British middle class life, while at the same time showing a genuine affection for it. This was the first animated feature from Aardman Studios and it set the bar pretty high, which they have since equaled and occasionally exceeded.
Some of the reference and the sometimes difficult to understand accents may go right over the heads of audiences (especially the tots) but most of the humor is universal. I found myself grinning maniacally throughout and Da Queen remarked at how cute she found the chickens. This is a winner, folks. Kids may find the flick’s Britishness a bit hard to fathom, but they’ll muddle through. I like this one far better than a lot of the animated features that flood the market in the second decade of the 21st century and I think that you will, too.
WHY RENT THIS: Clever and well-animated (even if you don’t like Claymation).
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might be a little bit too British for American audiences, particularly for the younger set.
FAMILY MATTERS: Perfect for all audiences
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rocky and Ginger are named for the childhood chicken pets of co-director Nick Park.
NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a read-along version for younger viewers, as well as a fascinating featurette on the Claymation process itself.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $224.8M on a $45M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.
FINAL RATING: 8/10
TOMORROW: Hey Hey, It’s Esther Blueburger