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'Chicken Run'

Poultry in motion: 'Chicken Run' is a great and funny escape

Friday, June 23, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A word to the wise: Don't take your children to see "Chicken Run" and then serve them chicken pot pies (especially) or chicken wings or chicken nuggets. Unless you'd like to explain whether they might be eating Ginger or Babs or some other coop captive.

'Chicken Run'


STARRING: Voices of Mel Gibson, Julia Sawalha

DIRECTORS: Peter Lord and Nick Park


CRITIC'S CALL: 3 stars


The girls are among the characters in "Chicken Run," the first feature-length film from the Oscar-winning team behind the inventive "Wallace & Gromit" and "Creature Comforts" shorts. They use clay animation rather than the sort of computer animation employed in "Toy Story" or "A Bug's Life."

"Chicken Run" is "The Great Escape" with fowl. Just like Steve McQueen in the 1963 caper film, a clucker named Ginger keeps trying to escape -- unsuccessfully -- and getting tossed in solitary confinement. Ginger, like McQueen's "Cooler King," even passes the time by tossing a ball against the wall of her claustrophobic confines.

Instead of being set in a German POW camp, "Chicken Run" is set on the Tweedy egg farm in England, run with Gestapo-like sternness by Mrs. Tweedy in starched dress, black rubber boots, thick eyebrows and severe hair. When the henpecked Mr. Tweedy suspects the chickens of plotting and organizing, the Mrs. ridicules him.

But the chickens are plotting and organizing. Ginger (voice of Julia Sawalha), you see, dreams of escaping to the other side. She knows the grass is greener -- she knows there's grass, for one thing, over the horizon. She knows there's a land where there are no farmers, no growling dogs patrolling the perimeter, no wait for the allotment of chicken feed.

Ginger's desire gains a new urgency when the farmers buy a chicken pie machine. In go the chickens, out come pastry pies with chicken, veggies and gravy. When a cocky newcomer, a rooster named Rocky, flies into the coop, Ginger sees him as helping to lead the chickens to freedom, but things don't go exactly as planned.

"Chicken Run" is rated G, which means parents will feel free to bring toddlers to the movie. But it's no "Bug's Life," with blue and pale purple bugs and brightly colored universe. The palette here is heavy on muted browns and grays, with a number of scenes set at night.

Despite some variations in weight, demeanor, hats, jewelry and scarves (Ginger, for example, favors a cute floral number), the chickens pretty much look alike. That makes it a little difficult to tell them apart, and, yes, I realize how utterly silly that sounds.

"Chicken Run" is, in a way, a sophisticated art film for families. When Rocky asks, "Now which bunk is mine?" and all the chickens chatter excitedly, it's a sly nod to the sex appeal of actor Mel Gibson, who speaks for the rooster. And Rocky is called "the lone free ranger," a smart combination of Lone Ranger and free-range chickens. But will your average 4-year-old get that?

Maybe that explains the restlessness among a preview audience, although a crying baby did not help. I recall the audience being rapt during "A Bug's Life" and attentive during "Dinosaur," but this one wasn't engaged for about the first half. A lively musical number and a harrowing trip through the pie machine finally got much of the crowd's attention.

"Chicken Run" is very clever in its details: Two rats, frequent visitors to the coop, try to peddle a shuttlecock as a hat/wedding veil; an old-timer makes a jab about an American being "overpaid, oversexed and over here"; and Rocky tools around on a hybrid of a scooter-tricycle rather than McQueen's motorbike. It promotes the idea of one for all and all for one, along with the concept of freedom, even for chickens.

It's hard to criticize "Chicken Run" when we're always railing about the dumbing down of movies. Its high-brow high jinks make "The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas" look like Stone Age entertainment. It also answers that age-old question: Yes, chickens have lips -- at least these ones.

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