Director: Peter Lord, Nick Park
Screenplay: Karey Kirkpatrick
Starring: Julia Sawalha, Lynn Ferguson, Mel Gibson, Miranda Richardson, Tony Haygarth, Benjamin Whitrow, Jane Horrocks, Imelda Staunton, Timothy Spall, Phil Daniels
Runtime: 84 Minutes
Original UK Release: 2000
Although the general sweep of Chicken Run’s ambition and initial pitch is as darkly humorous and novel as The Great Escape but with chickens, it’s a film that stands on its own even without that level of reference for younger audiences, and for grownups informs it with a new level of appreciation and understanding while never undercutting its own tension, engagement and narrative.
As is typical of their past work, the film looks wonderful. Relying on a heavy dose of referential comedy given its chief influence, the slapstick and visual comedy on show are fast, reflective and satisfying in its pace and execution. Directors Peter Lord and Nick Park have overseen a spectacular collaborative work, and the difficulty to animated fowls made helpful through distinct and memorable designs.
Also as striking are the characters themselves, even as livestock trapped within their own prison cells and cramped living conditions they are very human and steeped in empathy and understanding. These figures informed by a terrific vocal cast.
Julia Sawalha’s Ginger is level-headed and driven by her compassion for her fellow hens and her own longing for freedom and space. Mel Gibson’s hotshot cockerel Rocky Rhodes is a loud and extravagant swindler of a character who literally catapults into the film and shakes up the dynamic well. Around them are the likes of Jane Horrocks’ hilariously innocent and dim-witted Babs (who seems to think Ginger being sent to solitary confinement is her going on holiday), Imelda Staunton’s champion egg-layer and cynic Bunty, the brilliant comedy duo of Timothy Spall and Phil Daniels as smuggler rats, and a great turn from Benjamin Whitrow as an old and supposed RAF pilot Fowler – just wait to see how that explains itself.
Then there are the villains, in the form of the Tweedy farmer’s who rule over the flock with an iron fist. Miranda Richardson’s Mrs Tweedy is a terrifying figure of control, with a real nasty streak and a determination to go up in the world, unsatisfied with the simple farming life she has married into (they both refer to each other as Mr and Mrs respectively) and willing to sacrifice every chicken on her farm to do so. While the bumbling Mr Tweedy is the subject to the brunt of her ire as he’s fixated on his paranoia that “those chickens are organised” while slowly convinced that he's losing his mind – which leads to one of the film’s best lines about “revolting” chickens.
The scale is unlike anything they’ve accomplished before. Aardman has come a long way since the train track chases of yore, and for such a small setting they make the most of the sweeping and epic scope of the story in the later stages as their final escape plan takes form, including a brilliant brass score from John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams.
This is a familiar story, and the beats might be seen coming a mile away for grownups, but it’s being told in a way that has never been seen before, populated with entertaining characters and an anchored story. Chicken Run is an incredible feat; exciting, side-splitting, alarming and occasionally touching, it's not as humble as their former work, but it’s operating on a level all its own and stands as one of their best works.