Chicken Run

on June 21, 2000 by Kim Williamson
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   With a villain with a hint of Himmler, a stalag-like barracks numbered 17 guarded by dobermans and undercut by makeshift tunnelings, an aged but eventual co-hero who oft recalls his days with the RAF and has a distrust of Yanks ("always late for the war!"), and a narrative featuring an ample dose of the British pluck that saw the Isles through the Blitz, this first feature from the talented hands of English stop-motion filmmakers Nick Park and Peter Lord might play even better in the U.K., where it opens a week past its stateside debut, than here in America. However, for animation aficionados who have grown to cherish the Oscar-caliber antics of Park's Wallace & Gromit claymations "A Grand Day Out," "The Wrong Trousers" and "A Close Shave" or his life-in-the-zoo "Creature Comforts"--all from the Aardman studio run by the two directors here--"Chicken Run" will seem to bear the same amount of linguistic, visual and plain-out pratfall humor--except, more marmalade than jam, spread more thinly over the length not of those shorts but of a full-length film.

   The setting is an English countryside in the 1950s, at a rundown chicken farm surrounded by barbed wire. Led by the indomitable Ginger (voiced by "A Midwinter's Tale's" Julia Sawalha), who wants to lead her compatriots to freedom away from their coop where they either must lay eggs or else become fryers, the hens attempt escape after escape--in a style less reminiscent of Steve McQueen than of Hogan's Heroes. To their aid, however unwillingly, comes roamin'-kind-of-rooster Rocky (Mel Gibson), who Ginger believes can teach her gals to fly--a misunderstanding that Rocky knows of but does not correct. For Rocky is on the run from the circus, and he needs a place to hide. But then the story gets a gas chamber--here, an automated chicken-pie maker, a brute-and-belchy contraption that hens will go into but only dinners will come out--when the wicked farm wife Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson) decides to exit the egg business altogether.

   Part of the charm of the Wallace & Gromit shorts comes from the natural affections of a man and his dog, and another part from the Buster Keaton-like silent antics of the beloved bowser as he both interacts with and works to save from disaster his slightly befuddled inventor/master. Here, it's chicken and chicken--and the animals talk, which throws greater vocal pressure on screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick and draws less on the quiet comic-motion masteries of director Park. The results are certainly much more than passable but not nigh on the genre perfection of, say, "A Close Shave." In terms of character interaction and story flow, "Chicken Run" need a bit less glycol and more avfuel: The romance between Rocky and Ginger is virtually inert (a key problem being that, as with "The Lion King" and any Kenneth Branagh starrer, the lead has no lips with which to kiss), and the will-they-make-it? dramatic question recalls 1945 daylight certitudes rather than the blood-tears-and-sweat fears of the nights of 1940. With matters of the heart nearly inert and final victory a foregone conclusion, "Chicken Run" gets by on the elements of fun and frivolity common to all the Aardman animations. Voices by Mel Gibson, Julia Sawalha, Miranda Richardson and Jane Horrocks. Directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park. Written by Karey Kirkpatrick. Produced by Peter Lord, David Sproxton and Nick Park. A DreamWorks release. Animated. Rated G. Running time: 80 min

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