Run, Chicken Run!

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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 season 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 movie age of nine-figure budgets, the film 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."

The mood is less brave than bleak on the moor of Tweedy's farm, in the mid-'50s. Mrs. Tweedy, the vicious camp commandant (voiced by Miranda Richardson), and her slow-witted, henpecked husband (Tony Haygarth) have shown her prisoners what happens to a hen who hasn't laid eggs: it becomes a chicken with its head cut off. This fowl existence is driving even Ginger (Julia Sawalha, best known as the equally henpecked young Saffy on the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous) close to desperation. Then, out of the sky, a savior drops with a thud. He is Rocky Roads (Gibson), the "flying rooster" from a traveling circus, and he vainly promises to teach the hens-this coop of flighty, flightless birds-how to soar to freedom. But while Rocky the flying churl plays up to "all the beautiful English chicks," Mrs. Tweedy has bigger, nastier plans. She has bought a machine that will turn her chicken stalag into a factory for chicken pies. The prison camp is to be a death camp.

Chicken Run's style and tone will be endearingly familiar to those who have seen Park's Oscar-winning short work. Creature Comforts (1989) attached the comments of zoo visitors to claymated lions, bears and baby hippos, with sad and hilarious results. The trio A Grand Day Out (1989), The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1995) were mini-epics starring Wallace, a staid, daft suburban bachelor inventor, and his brilliant, long-suffering dog Gromit. Park has now adapted to feature length his obsession with the forlorn wit of caged animals, with the quiet exasperation of rural English life, with complex machinery destined to go wrong-and with bead-eyed, lipless creatures who have more lower teeth (six or eight) than upper (four). These features give his charactersa perpetually dazed expression,as if they've been beaten goofyby life's inequities and iniquities. Simply to keep going is an act of heroism.

Park, Lord and screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick stocked Chicken Run with a cross section of Brit types: Bunty (Imelda Staunton) is bossy; silly Babs (Jane Horrocks, who played Bubble on Ab Fab) is forever knitting-when she gets morose, she knits a noose. Mac (Lynn Ferguson) is the nearsighted soulof Scottish ingenuity. Fowler (Benjamin Whitrow), a crusty veteran of the raf, says Yanks can't be trusted: "always late for every war." The hens' lines to the outside world are Nick (Timothy Spall) and Fetcher (Phil Daniels), two music-hall Cockney rats-larcenists with a soft streak.

It all might seem fanciful, but for Park, who was raised in rural Lancashire, Chicken Run comes close to a childhood memoir. "My family had chickens," he says, "just as pets. They used to come into the porch and eat the food, like a dog really. Or they'd come in the house and steal things. We couldn't bear to eat them; they were characters. Then when I was 16 or 17, I had a summer job at a chicken-packing factory; we had to fold up plucked chickens and pack them in cellophane trays. I also did a day working in a slaughterhouse-it was horrible. Some of what I saw there did get through to the pie machine in the film."

A team of 25 animators toiled to achieve two or three seconds of footage a day, as Lord and Park patrolled the tiny sets like the barons of Brobdingnag. The Aardman shop buzzed with the work of painters, press molders and a gent known as the mouth-and-beak-replacement coordinator.

And every few weeks, Jeffrey Katzenberg, whose DreamWorks paid for the film, flew in for moral support-"Support," he notes, "means underneath, lifting up, as opposed to on top, holding down"-and to debate the fine points. "Nick and I are English," Lord says. "We don't shout and scream. Whereas Jeffrey says what he thinks immediately and loudly. He wants everything to be argued." Lord finally figured out how to react to the American rooster: "We listen and nod and then go and do our own thing." One thing they did for Katzenberg: an American TV spot for the fast-food tie-in with Burger King (you were expecting Kentucky Fried Chicken?). All the hens chorus, "Save the chickens! Eat more beef!"

In any format, live action or animation, good films are as scarce as-well, you know. Chicken Run is that rare film that advances the art while bathing the audience in smiles. All it took was three years of mind-bending labor to pullet together.

-Reported by Carole Buia/ New York and Elizabeth Lea/Bristol