IT’S CALLED claymation or model animation: a technique of working with clay or plasticine models and filming them frame by frame, creating an illusion of movement. David Sproxtan, Nick Park and Peter Lord of Aardman Studios have been working in this medium for a number of years: they are seven time Academy Award nominees for their short films, the most famous of which are the Wallace and Gromit series. Finally a full length feature has been produced, and, in a summer movie season that ranged from freak-out to gross-out films, it was a welcome release.
Think of Chicken Run as Babe meets The Great Escape. It’s a wonderfully whimsical fable about a chicken farm, where the chickens organize to save their skins from their masters who seek to destroy them. It’s got all the ingredients of good story telling, including a great sense of humour, zany characters and enough suspense to keep even the youngest moviegoer engaged.
As well as marvelling at the extraordinary craftsmanship that lies behind this production, what makes it a worthwhile cinematic experience is the creativity of the story line. Sure, it’s got lots of the movie clichés, but it turns them in unexpected ways, revealing classic truths in a new guise.
[pullquote] The film is set at the chicken farm of Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy (voices of Tony Haygarth and Miranda Richardson). Although they work hard, the farm does not produce enough revenue to make them rich, so they hatch a plan to change the farm from producing eggs to becoming a factory for making chicken pot pie.
Meanwhile, Ginger (voice of Julie Sawalha) is inspiring her fellow chickens to leave the farm behind and find freedom. Her crusade is given a boost with the arrival of Rocky, an American flying rooster (voice of Mel Gibson) who, in exchange for his safety, promises to teach all the chickens everything he knows about flying.
What follows is a race between the Tweedys and the chickens to see who can develop their plans more quickly. All sorts of complications arise; Ginger herself almost loses her life, but in the end, good triumphs over evil, love conquers and the chickens are free. It’s all great fun.
What lifts this film from being just an interesting exploration of model animation is the messages it gives about leadership and community. Ginger is a very gifted leader. She has vision: while the other chickens are more or less content with their lives on the farm, she has a longer view. Her vision is not confined by things as they are; she can see possibilities and ask, “why not?”
Ginger has persistence: when at first her plans don’t work out, she keeps working away, trying different possibilities. She shows ingenuity: she can “think outside the box,” imagining different ways to use materials and resources, and calling out the best in her comrades. And she shows personal courage, risking her own life for the good of the others.
Lots of people will think of Chicken Run as a kids movie, and it is, but it will appeal to adults as well. In a world that needs ethical, conscientious leaders, this movie delivers the goods. It encourages having a vision of a better future, it values persistence and ingenuity, and invites all to have courage to take risks on behalf of others. For these reasons alone Chicken Run is worth seeing.
And the model animation is amazing. A movie made without computer animation is rare enough in this digital crazed time. When you consider the hours spent producing this movie, you’re glad they told a worthwhile story. Not only are they inspiring, Ginger and her friends impress you with how clay can come to life. Sounds vaguely theological, doesn’t it? Peter Elliott is dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, and a member of the board of directors of the Vancouver Film Festival.