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Playing Chicken: Poultry plotters brainstorm their big escape in 'Chicken Run.'

Poultry Power

The hens in 'Chicken Run' are mad as peck, and they're not going to take it anymore

By Richard von Busack

HISTORIANS OVERSTRESS the lesson that revolutions devour their children--remember that George Washington died in bed. Nick Park and Peter Lord's Chicken Run is a little like Animal Farm, the 1949 novel George Orwell wrote about Stalinism in which intelligentsia pigs who cast their lot with the humans betray a barnyard revolution.

Most readers remember the finale: the oppressors mirrored by the formerly oppressed; one looks from man to pig to pig to man unable to tell the difference. Thus, in America, the moral of Animal Farm is misread as "resistance is futile." The 1999 live-action version of Animal Farm (now on DVD) even cooked up a happy ending for the bitter story, in which the critters get benign new human masters. What was wrong with the farm, then, was just mismanagement, not the system itself.

By contrast, Chicken Run comes out in favor of henhouse insurrection. Under the film's tasty, crispy skin is a dark, well-cooked, meaty subtext clinging to that bone of contention that is political discourse today. And it's more than a PETA parable. In a phone interview, directors Park and Lord admitted that they weren't vegetarians anyhow. "Eating chickens is very common to us," Lord said. "We're heartless."

The animators, best known here for their beloved Wallace and Gromit claymation cartoons, stressed that the politics of Chicken Run had to take second place to making an exciting adventure film. Very well, but the film's stirring portrait of the struggle against the running-dog Tweedies of Tweedy Farm, Dullton, North Riding, is rousing; even Play-Doh chickens can be the vessels for the revolutionary spirit.

Tweedy's farm has all the mud, gloom and barbed wire you'd expect from a holiday in Poland in '44. One hen who refuses to submit is Ginger (voiced by Julie Sawalha, who played Saffron on Absolutely Fabulous). In the opening montage, Ginger's various ingenious attempts end with solitary confinement in a locked Dumpster. A sympathetic sister hen, summing up the mustn't-grumble spirit, looks for the bright side in Ginger's captivity: "It's nice to get a bit of time for yourself, isn't it."

Into this prison camp flies Rocky, an American rooster (voiced by Mel Gibson). He breaks a wing when he crash lands, but he says he can teach the hens to fly when he's mended. Meanwhile, the Tweedys, unimpressed by the egg production of their fowls, decide to haul in a machine to make chicken pies. The hens race against time to try to escape, with Rocky cheering them on, while Ginger's lieutenant, the Scottish engineering expert Mac (Lynn Ferguson), schemes on the blackboard. The rooster does all the crowing, but the hen lays all the eggs, and Rocky's bluster may not be enough to save them from the gravy.

AS AN ADVENTURE, Chicken Run is an animated miracle, and it has a substory commenting on the rivalries between the British and Americans during WWII. "Flash" is a British word used to describe certain characteristics of noise, arrogance and commonness. Rocky is flash. The played-out ex-RAF rooster Fowler, an old-age pensioner, knows this and grumbles out the ancient complaint about the Yanks: "Overpaid, oversexed and over 'ere."

That well-known slur originated because American soldiers stationed in England were paid five times what British army soldiers were. Lord said that the "remark is proverbial. We've used it for great comic effect because we were thinking about the contrast of Rocky's personality to Chicken Run's look of the bleak, impoverished war years. In England during the war, the Americans arrived looking very glamorous, well paid, full of nylons and chocolates and cigarettes, and they totally dazzled the local population."

In an ordinary film, Rocky's brash style would be what they call proactive--he'd be a braggart everyone would love. Here, in Chicken Run, it's all surface flash. The rooster fails in the clutch but learns as much from the hens as they do from him.

The Britishness of the cartoons of the Aardman animation studio is something critics always mention. "Britishness" sounds patronizing, as if Aardman were in the tea-cozy and royal china trade.

Lord noted, "I think people find our films very British, because of the way they're understated. We're not big on the sentimental side, at least not on the outside."

Aardman's cartoons are often uncartoony, unflash; often there are no big reactions, no squash and stretch, no giant eyeballs. Aardman's big stars are Wallace and Gromit, who have played in three short films (a fourth is in the planning stages). The Wallace and Gromit series--"The Wrong Trousers," "A Close Shave" and "A Grand Day Out"--presents the science-fiction adventures of Wallace, a reserved middle-aged inventor, and Gromit, his expressive yet mouthless dog.

I asked Park if Wallace was based on anyone. "Not consciously," he replied. "In 'A Grand Day Out,' Wallace builds a rocket ship that takes him and Gromit to the moon. Later, it became clear to me that the character was based on my father. I'd recall the time he'd built a trailer from scratch, and how we all took a vacation in it--how, like Wallace's rocket, it had wallpaper inside the furniture. So in a sense, I was writing my own story. It's the case in Chicken Run too. My family raised chickens, and my sister and I wrote stories. Rocky the Free Ranger was one of them. ... Childhood is a rich source for our work."

THE LOVE SCENES in Chicken Run have a poignance usually missing in movies even with featherless bipeds in them. The clash of wills between Ginger and Rocky is taken seriously as well as satirically. At one point, Rocky says, "We have to work together as a team. Which means doing everything I tell you."

I asked the animators if that kind of teamwork summed up the experiences Aardman had with Hollywood. "Absolutely not," Lord said. "We had a great relationship with DreamWorks, very hands-off. ... But the story of Chicken Run is a bit parallel to how the film was made, with the British chickens looking for help from an American. I'd better not say more than that."

As ambitious as Chicken Run is, it was filmed in Bristol by a not very large company; and its handmade qualities can often get kicked aside when an American studio enters the picture. But Chicken Run is a big entertainment that plays like the independent film it is. Park and Lord have done wonders previously, before but nothing like this.

Chicken Run is a cartoon that's a parable of escape--yet not an escapist parable, as we see the hens teaching the next generation how to fly. More goes on here than the type of heroism intoned in the movie trailers: "In a time of ..." "Only one man could." It's a delight to see an adventure not just in the hands of one rooster but in the entire barnyard--and here's a movie an audience ought to flock to see.

Chicken Run (G; 85 min.), directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park, written by Mark Burton and featuring the voices of Mel Gibson and Julie Sawalha, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the June 22-28, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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