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Film Review: Chicken Run

Chicken Run (2000; Directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park)

There’s little question that the highly beloved Wallace & Gromit films dominate any discussion of the impressive output of Nick Park and Aardman Animations studios, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the simple and inspired Creature Comforts shorts. By putting the audio of real-world interviews with actual people into the mouths of Aardman’s signature claymation animals, Park wrung new possibilities out of animation’s long tradition of anthropomorphism. Park’s gift for imbuing his lumps of clay with more quirks and eccentricities and personality than many living actors can manage is on masterful display, and he improvizes tiny human touches like a nerdy British Rembrandt.

Moments before crying out, “Look, Kommandant: No hands!”

The first real feature-length display of these kind of talents, however, was Chicken Run, and it remains a glorious triumph in a medium that Park and Aardman have entirely mastered. It’s hard not to engage in wild hyperbole when discussing the technical achievements on display in this film, but at the same time, it all seems so effortless and natural and easy that they’re not hard to miss. It’s a testament to the tensile strength of the narrative, themes, and characters (stock though all three elements may largely be) that they are never overwhelmed by the mind-boggling technical prowess that underlies them.

Certainly there’s little that’s really original about Chicken Run on a script level, although plenty that is endearing and amusing. The parodies of and homages to The Great Escape and other WWII POW films are the backbone of the plot and the source for most of the characters, and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is referenced for the thousandth time in the pie machine sequence. The theme of desired freedoms and yearning for a better life are universal, while the productivity-obsessed overlords without a hint of ethical scruples are eminently familiar from the labour world.

What makes all this conventional material soar, though, is the design and execution of the imprisoned fowl protagonists, and the glorious sympathy of their anthropomorphized emotion. The tiny expressive details are always what make human performances great, and Park, Lord and their team have always understood that and made sure that their clay-bound animal heroes are more human than human. That’s entirely true of his chickens in this film, who are manifested as doughy blobs of reassurance. Beyond the witty visual gags, grinning verbal puns and wonderfully choreographed sequences of flurrying activity, it’s the warm soul of these beings that makes Chicken Run Aardman’s ultimate triumph (at least until Wallace & Gromit’s big-screen hijinks in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit blew past it a few years later).

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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