Run, Chicken Run!

The inmates of Hut 17 are planning a great escape. Viewers will get one in this high, wild and hen-some stop-motion adventure

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The inmates have tried a dozen ways of escaping from the prison camp. They've tried bouncing over the barbed-wire fence using a hot-water bottle as a trampoline; not enough thrust. They've huddled under the clothes of a giant scarecrow, but the garment ripped, leaving them exposed. After so many failures, the prisoners are distressed and balky. "We haven't tried not trying to escape," says Bunty. Babs, her dim friend, nods brightly. "That might work."

Ginger, their leader, is not one to chicken out. Told the chances of escaping are a million to one, she replies, "Then there's still a chance." But she knows she faces longer odds than the pows of Stalag 17 or The Great Escape. Those lads might have been killed. Ginger and her brood--the chickens of Tweedy's Farm--may get cooked.

Chicken Run, a comedy-adventure, with feathers, is exactly the picker-upper this macho-movie summer needs. It's a parable of plucky sisterhood: hens who endure life's drab defeats while hoping for a break. The film is funny and touching and beautifully understated; its characters earn big laughs with the subtlest wrinkle of a brow, sobs with a stifled sigh. In a season of nine-figure budgets, the movie was made for chicken feed ($42 million). It also boasts an accent that is defiantly English--Yorkshire, even--with a dash of Yank bravado from visiting star Mel Gibson.

And while Hollywood goes mad for techno tricks, directors Nick Park and Peter Lord and their team at Aardman Studios of Bristol, England, are still crafting films by hand. Chicken Run is one of the few features made in the sublimely masochistic form of animation known as stop motion, in which plasticine puppets on miniature film sets must be adjusted 24 times for every second of film. A live-action feature has perhaps 500 shots; this 82-min. movie has 118,080. "The detail is astonishing," says Lord, still in awe of his colleagues' industry 28 years after co-founding the studio. "There must be more man-hours per film frame here than in anything else known to man." The art of the Aardmen and -women is to make years of hard work look easy. Viewers don't see the pain; they feel the joy.

Chicken Run is part of a new vitality and variety in what was once called cartooning. "For decades," says film historian John Canemaker, director of the animation program at New York University, "feature animation was dominated by one style: Disney's. Now a diversity of techniques and styles are gaining acceptance. There are computer-animated features, such as Pixar's Toy Story and A Bug's Life. There is clay and/or puppet animation--and because of the artistry of Nick Park and Peter Lord, it is going to grab audiences. We are expanding the definition of the form. It's a brave new world in animation."

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