Rated G - Running Time: 1:24 - Released 6/23/00

Many parents who spent the '90s raising small children (self included) will be familiar with Nick Park's Academy Award winning "Wallace and Gromit" animated shorts. Featuring the exploits of a man and his smarter-than-average dog getting themselves in all sorts of crazy situations, Wallace and Gromit provided many kids with wholesome, clever entertainment with a British twist. I was always amazed at how Park and his staff could produce such hilarious, quirky characters out of simple pieces of modeling clay. Chicken Run is the first feature-length film from Park's Aardman production company, and it is no less brilliant. His directorial collaboration with Peter Lord provides a peek into the secret life of chickens, with lots of physical humor, fantastic characters voiced by some well-known actors, and a marvelously funny story of courage and, er...pluck.

The action takes place on an Auschwitz-style chicken farm run by Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy (Tony Haygarth and Miranda Richardson). While Mr. Tweedy is bumbling and suspicious, his wife is just plain evil, keeping strict records of egg production and slaughtering any hen whose numbers fall off. Ginger (Julia Sawalha, Absolutely Fabulous) and her fellow yardbirds seek freedom through numerous Hogan's Heroes-style escape attempts, but while Ginger often succeeds in getting herself out, her conscience prevents her from leaving the others, and therefore she usually ends up in solitary confinement (the coal bin). One night as she dreams forlornly of life on the outside, an airborne fowl drops from the sky practically into her lap. He is Rocky the Rooster (Mel Gibson), a brash American circus bird who has apparently learned to slip the surly bonds of earth. Since the fall injures his wing, he is bound to stay a few days, and quickly becomes the talk of the henhouse.

Ginger is certain that Rocky is their ticket out of oppression; if he can teach them all to fly, they can stage a mass exodus over the wire. Meanwhile, Mrs. Tweedy has discovered another, more sinister way to use her unproductive prisoners: chicken pies. So now the clock is running, and Rocky must find a way to liberate the flock before they all end up baked in pastry.

I am glad to see that Chicken Run is unashamedly rated G. So few kids' films these days have the guts not to include some violence or bad language so they can score a PG or PG-13 rating and thereby attract teenagers. But not only is this film free of objectionable material, the screenplay by Karey Kirkpatrick (based on a story by Lord and Park) is clever and full of subtle, character-based humor. Visually, the characters resemble those of Wallace & Gromit, with rows of white teeth much too large for their mouths (although they have upgraded the eyes to include irises), but their behavior is hilariously diverse. Rocky is the cock of the walk, and the object of coy flirtation from most of the addle-brained hens; only Ginger is smart enough to see through his flashy facade. The one other suspicious member of the feathered community is Fowler (Benjamin Whitrow), the elderly rooster veteran who rants stuffily about his days in the R.A.F. Rounding out the coop is the none-too-swift Babs (Jane Horrocks, Little Voice), and the scientifically disposed Mack, who sports thick glasses and an even thicker Scottish brogue. Also adding fun is a pair of rats who serve as petty criminals; their puns during the flying lessons are unbearable.

The animation in this film is delightful, with a marvelous sense of physics. It's hard to make bits of clay flutter like feathers, but somehow they do. It is rather dark, both literally and figuratively, and there are obvious borrowings from Park's previous films. For instance, the chicken pie machine, a scary mass of rivets, gears, and levers, is surprisingly similar to the sheep-to-sweater machine in Wallace & Gromit's A Close Shave. But Chicken Run is a lot of fun and a noble story, finally expunging the cowardly reputation that has too long been associated with flightless farm birds. ****½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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