GREAT FILMS: Chicken Run (2000)

Chicken Run (UK, 2000)
Directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park
Starring Julia Sawalha, Mel Gibson, Miranda Richardson, Tony Haygarth 

Whenever Christmas rolls around, you could bet whichever family house you’re spending it in on three films being on TV at some point: Die Hard, The Sound of Music and The Great Escape. The enduring appeal of the latter, especially in British culture, is such that it’s now hard to imagine the festive season without it, and it makes it all the more difficult for another Christmas-film-that-isn’t-specifically-Christmas-based to muscle in and claim some of that small-screen immortality. 
In the year 2000, however, Aardman Animations managed to pull this off. Still flush with the success of the first three Wallace and Gromit shorts, and the Oscar recognition that accompanied them, Peter Lord and Nick Park embarked on the company’s first feature-length offering. The result became the highest-grossing stop-motion film of all time, and remains extremely highly regarded in critical circles. But even without its glowing reputation, Chicken Run is a fabulously entertaining film which provides both heart and huge enjoyment throughout its running time.
One thing that’s been constantly impressive about Aardman throughout the company’s history is the attention to detail in their films. Each of their offerings contain hundreds of hidden jokes, references or other items, something which rewards repeat viewing while also getting across to first-time viewers the amount of thought that has gone into every frame. It’s tempting to write this off as a natural consequence of the medium; if you are having to painstakingly move the plasticene moulds slowly, with a minute of film time taking weeks to shoot, you can afford to take the time to plant all those little Easter eggs. But you won’t find that sort of detail in all the hand-drawn films from Disney’s Golden Age, suggesting it is much more a reflection of the love that Lord, Park et al feel towards this form of storytelling. 
If Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit was Park’s distinctly Northern version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, then this is how The Great Escape would have turned out had it been set in 1950s Yorkshire. The film readily acknowledges both its debt to the film and the film’s reputation, and intelligently confounds our expectations in the opening montage. By showing us edited highlights of Ginger’s previous attempts to escape – some of them smart, some of them ludicrous – it sets up her character with minimal dialogue and prevents the early sequences from feeling needlessly repetitive. It gets all the major references out of the way, so that the resulting plot can more readily stand on its own.
What becomes clear as Chicken Run unfolds is how much this is a character-driven comedy, rather than an action comedy with characters in it. Like Nigel Cole’s work on Saving Grace and Calendar Girls from the same period, the comedy is orchestrated to result as greatly as possible from the relationships these quirky ‘chicks’ have with each other, including but not definitively their relationships with men. Park is a better orchestrator of drama than Cole, and both films still have set-pieces punctuating the plot, but both directors have an interest in plucky, working-class characters standing up to people who put them down.
Outside of these films, the main point of comparison from a narrative standpoint would be A Bug’s Life. Both films revolve around anthropomorphic characters resisting an established pecking order (ha ha), both have power-hungry villains who boss around those who are more simple and humble than themselves, and both have a third act which involves building a flying machine to defeat the antagonists. Chicken Run is more action-orientated compared to Pixar’s retuning of Aesop, and it has to follow a few more generic storytelling beats. But it wins out over John Lasseter’s film because its characters are more distinctive and better written, the final set-piece feels like a more natural continuation of the story, and the various beats of said set-piece are more carefully planned and paced.
I stated in my review of Minions that it is often very difficult to explain exactly why a comedy is funny without simply listing every single joke contained therein. Since comedy is a massively subjective phenomenon, even providing an exhaustive list of the jokes may not convince a potential viewer that a given film is worthy of praise. The best one can do is to explain both the style of jokes that are being employed (citing the odd individual gag as an example) and argue why their execution succeeds, whether on a narrative level or a purely mechanical one. One can have a great comic story with few individual stand-alone jokes, or a film with a great many jokes but a story which is paper-thin.
Chicken Run sees many of the hallmarks that Aardman honed in the Wallace and Gromit shorts being further refined and in some cases perfected. There are the references to established bastions of its given genre, such as Ginger’s re-enactment of the hat rescue from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. There’s the hilarious slapstick gags, including the numerous attempts at flying or Rocky’s accident-prone entrance, the latter of which plays like a more darkly comic take on Buzz Lightyear’s first flight in Toy Story. And there’s the brilliant verbal humour, from the banter of Nick and Fletcher to the surreal non-sequiturs produced by Babs (Jane Horrocks in a very good performance). While there are fewer of the blink-and-you'll-miss-them visual puns that were in abundance in Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the film is still consistently funny from start to finish.
In my review of Kingsman: The Secret Service, I spoke about how the best comedies “always maintain a balance between the integrity of their structure and the content at which they are poking fun.” Whether taken as a spoof of prisoner-of-war films or an original story, Chicken Run passes this requirement with flying colours. It has as many jokes as it has feathers, but you never get the sense that we are being force-fed the humour to make us lose focus of any narrative shortcomings. Equally, while there are sections where things get serious, the film never forgets to find possibilities for humour; this is best shown in the aftermath of the twist surrounding Rocky, with the rain and lightning flashes eventually giving way to a full-on feathery brawl.
Much of the joy of Chicken Run, even in its most familiar elements, lies in the voice cast and the talent which they bring to creating their characters. Julia Sawalha, best known for her work on Absolutely Fabulous, is an ideal fit for Ginger, with the natural perkiness of her voice being aptly juxtaposed by her often sardonic dialogue. Mel Gibson’s voiceover work in Pocahontas wasn’t exactly stellar, but here he’s really good, drawing on his fast-talking work in the Lethal Weapon series to create a very likeable, Han Solo-esque protagonist. The stand-out, however, is Miranda Richardson; having just played Mary Magdalene in The Miracle Maker around the time, her performance here is cold and demonic, shifting subtly through the gears to make Mrs Tweedy truly intimidating.
On top of everything else, Chicken Run looks really special. The film was among the first to be entirely colour corrected by digital means (coming a narrow second to O Brother, Where Art Thou?), with the process being applied to bring an earthy, grubby look while retaining the immaculate craft of the plasticene. Even when it has to bring CGI into the mix to animate the rain or the gravy, it blends seamlessly with the rest of the animation – making it all the more disappointing that Flushed Away ended up being entirely CGI. This is the first film that the company made in its brief partnership with Dreamworks; suffice to say, everything worked great with this film before Jeffrey Katzenberg stuck his nose in and started to meddle.
The subsequent relationship between Aardman and Dreamworks helps to illuminate what makes Chicken Run work so well. Essentially, it is a difference between emotional intelligence and mere cleverness. Discounting the first two Shrek films, the majority of Dreamworks’ output aims for cleverness, whether it’s fast-talking characters or a litany of pop culture references in its script – and as a result you can often be impressed but not emotionally invested. Chicken Run is from first to last concerned with the credibility of its characters and doesn’t feel the need to show off. Thus, even as your nagging brain tells you that that coop wouldn’t fly, or that Ginger couldn’t support Mrs. Tweedy’s weight like that, you still feel invested because the film has the emotional fate of the characters at its heart.
Chicken Run remains a hilarious and brilliantly crafted comedy which may just be Aardman’s finest effort as a studio. While Curse of the Were-Rabbit and The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists! match it in terms of craft and rate of jokes, this film has the deeper emotional core to rival both its script and its impeccable visuals. It remains the yardstick against which all the company’s future efforts should be measured, and deserves pride of place in anyone’s Christmas viewing.

NEXT REVIEW: My 300th review!