Chicken Run is smart, witty, and very British, which would seem to be three strikes against it in our cheese-saturated kiddie culture. I hope I’m wrong; I hope the audience for Chicken Run extends beyond fans of Nick Park and his peerless Wallace and Gromit shorts, a fan base that in America is big but not Pokémon-sized. I liked Chicken Run more for what it isn’t than for what it so charmingly is: it isn’t bombastic, it doesn’t stoop to gross humor (although gross humor in the right hands is fun, as in the current Me, Myself & Irene), it has no insipid ballads — in short, it isn’t Disney. And, say I, thank God (or Nick Park, or DreamWorks) for that.
You could probably trace Nick Park’s influences pretty easily — the Warner Bros. cartoons, Rube Goldberg (Park never met a machine he didn’t like), Gary Larson, the alternately chipper and grumbling style of British comedy — but Park’s gentle wit is all his own. In Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run, Park’s love for all his characters, good and evil, is literally palpable: These characters have been forged of clay, fussed over, posed, photographed over a period of years. The slight jerkiness of the animation in Chicken Run is reassuring. We’re not watching a cold CGI toon, we’re watching actual characters occupying actual space. All of this may explain the magic of Park’s work: Everyone onscreen feels real, almost human.
The almost-humans in Chicken Run are pitted against two barely-humans: Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy (Tony Haygarth and Miranda Richardson), who operate a chicken farm that resembles a P.O.W. camp. The vicious Mrs. Tweedy, impatient with the paltry profits from eggs, looks into upscaling her enterprise: an elaborately cruel machine that turns chickens into pies. (The machine looks as if it were built from a blueprint of Mrs. Tweedy’s brain.) It’s up to Ginger (voice of Julia Sawalha), an escape-obsessed hen, and the visiting Rocky the Flying Rooster (voice of Mel Gibson), to lead their people — uh, flock — out of bondage.
There are several belly-laughs in Chicken Run, but most of it deals more with character comedy than with sight gags (there’s a priceless one involving lawn gnomes, without which, it seems, no modern British farce would be complete). As with the Babe movies, you don’t have to suspend your disbelief; the movie suspends it for you so deftly that you can watch a dialogue scene between Ginger and Rocky and respond to it as dialogue, not as a scene between Claymation critters. And the laughs here are as much verbal as visual. There’s one terrific line that asks you to imagine a chicken — a real chicken — in the cockpit of an RAF jet, and the wording of it is so logical yet so absurd that anyone in Monty Python would have been proud to have written it. Then the movie quickly gets on to the next bit.
Park was adamant that Rocky, the visiting American, not be the one who swoops in to save the day, and Mel Gibson, the inflated star now staring out at us from the Patriot poster, eats some humble pie here and comes out the better for it. He gets to do something he hasn’t done in years (not even in Pocahontas, where it could’ve been anyone’s voice) — he gives a solid supporting performance. The real star is Ginger; she and her coopmates wiggle and bounce, expressing the joy Nick Park takes in their bulbous bodies and rubber faces. (Actually clay faces, but why quibble?)
In Chicken Run, Nick Park survives the transfer from half-hour shorts to feature length; who wouldn’t want more of his bug-eyed, inner-tube-mouthed creations? Whether we get more depends on whether Chicken Run does well and justifies the expense of more Park movies. Yet quality and fun don’t necessarily guarantee success in this country; The Iron Giant died here despite rave reviews. Here is another intelligent, entertaining all-ages film, the kind of movie you all say you want to see more of. Nick Park has kept his end of the bargain; will you?