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"CHICKEN RUN"
(2000) (voices of Mel Gibson, Julia Sawalha) (G)

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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy/Action: With the aid and instruction of an American rooster, a small group of English hens hopes to fly out of their chicken farm before their owners convert the egg-laying operation into a chicken pie facility.
PLOT:
On Tweedy's Egg Farm somewhere in the English countryside, the egg-laying hens live in fear of facing the repercussions dealt out by the farm's profit-hungry owner, Mrs. Tweedy (voice of MIRANDA RICHARDSON) for not delivering their quotas. That is, except for Ginger (voice of JULIA SAWALHA), a hen whose determined escape attempts end with her being captured by the somewhat dimwitted Mr. Tweedy (voice of TONY HAYGARTH) and repeatedly thrown into solitary.

Things appear to look up when Ginger spots Rocky "The Flying Rooster" (voice of MEL GIBSON) flying through the air before crashing into their gated and fenced compound. An American who refers to himself as the "Lone Free Ranger," Rocky immediately melts the hearts of most of the hens, save for Ginger and Fowler (voice of BENJAMIN WHITROW), the farm's resident RAF veteran rooster.

Even so, Ginger believes that Rocky can teach the hens to fly and thus escape in mass from the farm. This couldn't come at a more fortunate time as Mrs. Tweedy has recently decided to turn the farm into a chicken processing plant and has just purchased a chicken pie assembly line machine. Although Rocky's injured arm presumably is what's preventing him demonstrating his flying prowess, something else makes him reluctant. Since Ginger and the others successfully hid him from his former circus owners, however, he agrees to help teach the hens how to fly, even if he's not sure exactly how to go about doing that.

As Mac (voice of LYNN FERGUSON), the bespectacled brain of the group tries to figure out the physics involved in such flight and two traveling salesman/barterer rates, Nick (voice of TIMOTHY SPALL) and Fetcher (voice of PHIL DANIELS) get their jollies out of watching their efforts, the hens, including Babs (voice of JANE HORROCKS) and Bunty (voice of IMELDA STAUNTON), put all of their faith in Rocky, although they soon learn that might not have been the wisest move.

Even so, with Mr. Tweedy repairing the monstrous chicken pie machine after an unsuccessful first run and Mrs. Tweedy raring to go in using the hens to increase her profits, Ginger and her friends race against time to get out of the farm before they end up in the pies.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
Back in 1963, a great film by the name of "The Great Escape" was released and detailed the story of a group of Allied POWs who planned an elaborate escape from a German POW camp. With an all-star cast, a great script and taut direction, the film received an Oscar nomination for editing, made a big star out of lead actor Steve McQueen, and is still considered one of the best "escape" films ever made.

Just two years later, TV's "Hogan's Heroes" debuted, and put a comedic spin on that same basic plot. It went on to run for seven consecutive years, making a star out of Bob Crane and Richard Dawson, the latter who went on to participate in and then host various popular TV game shows.

No one knows the future or potential of the "performers" appearing in the latest escape film (although the game show angle seems unlikely, especially since few people want to have a lipless chicken trying to give them a peck like Dawson), but there's little doubt that the animated "Chicken Run" will likewise become a big hit. A delightful, imaginative and even rousing picture, this film pays homage to and then puts even more of a spin on the old McQueen flick.

As such, chickens are now the "prisoners," the POW camp has become a fenced-in chicken farm, and the Nazis have been replaced by the farm's greedy proprietor, Mrs. Tweedy, a nasty antagonist worthy of comparisons to Cruella De Vil and "The Wizard of Oz's" Miss Gulch/The Wicked Witch of the West.

Yes, with the homage paid to "The Great Escape" (including the scenes where McQueen bounces a baseball off the wall while in solitary and empties escape materials via his pants legs) and "Stalag 17" (the henhouse has the same number), as well as parodies of scenes and material from "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the "Alien" films, "Star Trek," and even the old Looney Tunes cartoon featuring those polite gophers in the vegetable cannery assembly line, it's surprising that the evil Mrs. Tweedy doesn't cackle something along the lines of "I'll get you my pretty…and all of your hens too."

What's not surprising is the overall quality the film constantly exudes. After all, although this may be the first feature length film from Britain's Aardman Animations Ltd., the driving force behind this clay-animation picture is none other than Nick Park. While that name might not be recognizable to many moviegoers, he's the talent behind the delightful and Oscar winning "Wallace and Gromit" animated short films, as well as "Creature Comforts," his first effort to earn him such an award and well-deserved accolades.

Unlike traditional hand-drawn, Disney-style cartoons and animated features, or the more recent computer-generated films such as "A Bug's Life" and the "Toy Story" films, this one utilizes the painstaking clay-animation process. That's where "clay" figures - actually now a mixture of Plasticine, foam latex and a metal skeleton - are manipulated one frame at a time (with 24 frames equaling one second of screen time).

Seeing the complex shots that feature numerous characters, various camera movements and even falling rain, one can only admire and applaud the terrific results that stem from what best could be described as incredibly painstaking, meticulous and tedious work.

Yet, where many recent kid-based animated films have attempted to impress their audiences with amazing visual theatrics but then forgot the necessary substance to hold everything together, this one has a deliberately old-fashioned style and appearance. That look will not only appeal to kids hooked on "Wallace and Gromit," but also to those of us who grew up admiring the work of stop-motion pioneers Willis O'Brien, Ray Harryhausen and even the similarly constructed "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" Christmas special.

The film also benefits from having a clever and engaging story - thanks to screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick ("James and the Giant Peach," "The Rescuers Down Under") who works from an original story by Park and co-director Peter Lord (a producer and animator for some of the "Wallace and Gromit" films and a two-time Oscar nominee for his own short films, "Wat's Pig" and "Adam") - that contains an intelligent and subdued wit that's best described as stereotypically British.

As such, adults will get some of the more sophisticated, yet subtle humor that will likely sail over many kids' heads. They'll also appreciate the "less is sometimes more" philosophy where humor doesn't have to be so obvious and direct to be effective. Just as is the case with the "Wallace and Gromit" films where some of the funniest moments stem from Gromit the dog's long, motionless stares, the same holds true here for various scenes of momentary facial pauses involving the story's hens.

In fact, the purposefully unrealistic look of the fowl-based characters is what makes them so much fun to behold. With eyeballs attached to the surface of their faces without the benefit of eye sockets or eyelids (that only appear and then disappear with each blink), and cavernous mouths filled with teeth that would give the American Dental Association nightmares, the characters are definitely goofy-looking, but that's a great deal of their and the film's charm.

The rest comes from the engaging plot and the way in which the filmmakers handle it and the characters, both physically and dramatically. Nearly everything unfolds and flows quite naturally, without any overt signs of attempting to manipulate the audience, and it doesn't take long for the viewer to enjoy the characters, sympathize with their plight and root for their eventual success.

The results are a film that will entertain both kids and adults alike - through different but successful means - and rarely, if ever, stumbles. Instead, it effortlessly zips through its eighty-some minute runtime without hitting or containing any dead or dull moments or material.

It certainly doesn't hurt that the film has some of the best vocal work in any animated film since the "Toy Story" pictures. Leading the way with the most recognizable voice is Mel Gibson ("The Patriot," "Ransom") who comically voices the stereotypical, WWII era American blowhard who's filled with as much bluff as he is charm.

The best voicing, however, comes from Julia Sawalha (TV's "Absolutely Fabulous," "Pride and Prejudice") as Ginger, the smart and determined heroine. Imbuing her character with the proper, but subtle nuances needed to make the character work, Sawalha gives the best vocal performance by an actress in quite some time in such an animated effort.

Supporting vocal work, by the likes of Jane Horrocks ("Little Voice," TV's "Absolutely Fabulous") as the nervous Nellie hen, Miranda Richardson ("Sleepy Hollow," "Tom and Viv") as the spiteful and malicious farm owner, Benjamin Whitrow ("FairyTale: A True Story," "The Saint") as the RAF curmudgeon and Tony Haygarth ("Swept From the Sea," "The Trial") as the dimwitted and obviously henpecked farmhand, is just as top-notch and delightful as that delivered by the main performers.

Easily the best and most enjoyable animated picture to come along since the "Toy Story" films, this is one of those rare films that plays equally well to kids, their parents and even other adults without children in tow. Smart, always engaging, near perfectly made and quite delightful, "Chicken Run" should entertain nearly everyone, and thus receives a rating of 8 out of 10.




Reviewed June 17, 2000 / Posted June 23, 2000


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