[box cover]

Chicken Run

DreamWorks Home Video

Starring the voices of Mel Gibson, Miranda Richardson,
and Julia Sawalha

Written by Karey Kirkpatrick
Directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

Were it not for the revolution in computer graphics and the World Wide Web, several friends of mine would have no place in the world. Their skills and talents are so multi-functional that there were literally no jobs for them until the creation of Web browsers and other facets of the modern computer era. Blending fine design skills with excellent writing styles, these people — a web designer, a newspaper designer, a Photoshop instructor and designer — also serve to illustrate some truths of modern culture. One of these truths is that some people have to wait for the culture to catch up with them. Another is that graphic skills do not preclude writing skills.

This principle comes into play most crucially in animation. Simply put, animated films need to be written as well as drawn. Most animated features and shorts are junk, and the reason why is clear. Seized by a particular graphic style or the nugget of an idea, the filmmaker goes forward without thinking through a script. In the end, all too many animators fall back on derivative stories (if they bother to think up a story at all), or they settle for what can only be called hallucinogenic zooming.

Story sense is what separates Nick Park and Peter Lord of Britain's clay-animation specialists Aardman Animation from their competitors. In their short subjects and commercials, the duo seek to create literate and witty stories and amusing character sketches. The "Wallace and Gromit" shorts are justly famous, blending cartoonish characters made of clay with stories about "tight little island" eccentrics (and can there be any sadder moment in contemporary cinema than when Wallace learns that his beloved doesn't like cheese?)

The promise of Aardman Animation was fulfilled with Chicken Run in 2000. Thanks to the Hollywood clout of DreamWorks, the filmmakers graduated from short films to a full-length feature, or at least a feature as long as most cartoon movies. It's a narrative delight and a visual treat, offering a story that is legitimately suspenseful and achingly witty, and fit for child and adult alike.

Lord and Park admit that Chicken Run is an amusing take-off on The Great Escape. In this case, though, the detainees are chickens on a British chicken farm. Led by the indefatigable Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha, the daughter on Absolutely Fabulous), the all-too-passive hens attempt many breakouts that only end in failure, hounded by hounds and rounded up by Mr. Tweedy (Tony Hagarth), who throws Ginger into the film's version of a prison-camp cooler (containing an elaborate visual pun that Park and Lord explain on their audio commentary). There Ginger passes the time like a fowl Steve McQueen.

So a bunch of chickens want to escape a chicken farm. And their plans have a habit of failing. Into their midst plunges Rocky Rhodes (Mel Gibson), a refugee from an American circus. Since he seems to be able to fly, Ginger convinces him to stick around and teach all the others the intricate secrets of flight. His lessons fail; meanwhile, Ginger and the others learn that the dread Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson) is turning the failing chicken farm into a chicken pot-pie manufacturing plant. The chickens' task suddenly becomes more urgent, and Ginger and Rocky set up the circumstances for one last attempt to escape — an escape that does indeed involve flight.

On the surface, Chicken Run might strike some viewers as pedestrian. But in practice what Park and company have done is to infuse their story with verbal wit and endearing characters. And the story isn't all banalities: early in the film the viewer is given a dose of reality. A chicken named Edwina is killed by Mrs. Tweedy for failing her egg-production quota. The actual hazards of such a farm are thus kept always in the forefront of the viewer's mind, creating a climate of dread within the frivolity.

The plot of Chicken Run is tightly constructed, with a perfect balance of main plot and subsidiary characters. What's more, the animation is the best that Aardman has done yet. The two promotional featurettes that come on the DVD give the viewer a quick glance at some of the studio's earlier work, and frankly it looks a little rougher than Chicken Run, wherein the characters are sculpted more smoothly, and there are plenty of little visual details and varieties of facial expressions. The physical movements are simply amazing — note how Mr. Tweedy walks slump-shouldered down some steps in an opening sequence. That gesture, as with hundreds of others, is very well observed.

DreamWorks' DVD edition of Chicken Run comes with an anamorphic widescreen transfer (2.35:1) that is beautiful, with good color balance and plenty of detail. It's simply one of the best discs I've yet seen. The audio is a different matter, but only slightly. It's good, but not great. The film comes in both Dolby Digital and DTS, as well as Dolby 2.0 Surround. Based on a sampling of all three, the DTS best utilizes the full sound potential of the movie, but not fully until later in the film. John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams's score is really the major beneficiary of the sound construction.

The supplements are, for the most part, very good. There is an extensive, detailed audio commentary with Lord and Park in which they lovingly chronicle the making of the film, which took three years. There are also two rather conventional promotional documentaries, Poultry in Motion: The Making of Chicken Run, a 20-minute film shown on NBC, and The Hatching of Chicken Run, for HBO, made by the same team as the other film, but with slightly different components. One of the more unusual features is a 17-minute long "read along" version of the movie, presumably for kids (it's like a moving storybook). DVD-ROM features include "Escape the Pie Machine" and "Whack a Tweedy" games. The disc also includes two trailers and one TV spot, plus a sneak preview trailer of a forthcoming DreamWorks movie called Shrek. Extensive production notes consists of 23 screens of text-only history, and there are talent files on 10 actors and 13 crew members. Another feature is a modified set of Easter eggs called "Egg Hunt," which consists of 12 trivia bits about the making of the movie, hidden (not very well) on the menu, wherein one unearths such statements as "Approximately 220 sets were designed and built for the filming of Chicken Run." Occasionally there are also "Panic Buttons," with short clips from film. It's slightly amusing at first. Perhaps kids will like this feature as well.

— D. K. Holm

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