March 2, 2016  |  Film
Chicken Run: Poultry in Motion
Chicken Run. 2000. USA. Directed by Nick Park, Peter Lord. Courtesy of Dreamworks/Photofest

Chicken Run. 2000. USA. Directed by Nick Park, Peter Lord. Courtesy of Dreamworks/Photofest

Sometimes a movie makes you laugh out loud even if you’re in room by yourself. You can’t contain your laughter and don’t care who might or might not hear. This is exactly the experience I had recently watching Chicken Run (2000), the first feature-length film by the team of Peter Lord and Nick Park, two of the cheekiest animators in the business. (We also have Lord and Park to thank for the much-loved Wallace and Gromit, the oddball, cheese-fixated inventor and his taciturn anthropomorphic dog.)

Chicken Run spoofs many of the WWII prison-camp movies, in which the inmates may be down but they shouldn’t be counted out. The Tweedy chicken farm, somewhere in rural England in the 1950s, resembles a forced-labor camp with barbed wire, rough wooden cabins, bright lights on observation towers, and lots of mud. The hens, who are the farm rabble-rousers, live in Hut 17—an homage to Billy Wilder’s 1953 Stalag 17. Ginger, a hen determined to escape her fate as someone’s Sunday dinner, risks her life to bravely tunnel under or catapult over the fence—only to be caught and doomed to solitary confinement in a locked coal bin. When she finally returns, defeated but undeterred, to the hen population, one of her bunk mates (who has obviously taken the mantra of “only happy thoughts” to heart) says how nice it was for Ginger to have some alone time!

As with any POW escape movie, each hen has a distinct persona and quirky attributes. Mac, the brainy hen with clunky glasses and a goofy Scots accent, designs weapons of mass destruction that might get the hens to freedom and is always up for a good escape plan. Thankfully Mac is also good egg layer with no problem hitting the daily quota, which keeps Mrs. Tweedy’s ax from landing on her neck. Underperforming hens are routinely “chopped” and their bones picked over for the Tweedy Sunday feast.

When yet another escape attempt fails, Ginger gives up, resigned to a life of anxiety in the hen house. Then one day someone—or something—flies over the farm.

It’s Rocky the Flying Rooster, an escapee from a traveling circus. Ginger is convinced Rocky can teach her and the hens how to fly, allowing them to…ahem…fly the coop to freedom. Rocky knows he really doesn’t have any great skills but puts on a great show for the hens, running them through all manner of calisthenic drills and exercise. Fowler, the old rooster on the farm who comports himself as a dignified WWII RAF veteran, predicts failure for Rocky and the hens.

Then one day a huge truck pulls into the farm, offloading a cumbersome new machine. It seems the egg-laying business is not so lucrative these days, but customers want chicken pot pie. The machine is an all-in-one behemoth that will butcher, cook, and drown the chicken parts and vegetables in gravy: voila, a pot pie. With time running out for escape, the hens and Rocky design and build a makeshift airplane that they hope will transport them to freedom.

Chicken Run is both fun and surprisingly dark. When a terrified hen is unable to lay eggs over the course of a week, she is taken out to the woodshed and has her head chopped off. The hens in the camp yard hear the thud of the ax and their eyes grow wide.

Using the animation technique known as claymation, the artists sculpt a model and painstakingly shoot one frame at a time to record movement. A film like Chicken Run might accomplish 30 or so frames of completed photography per day. This is roughly one second of film as the projection speed of sound filmmaking is 24 frames per second. At that rate, it can take more than a year to complete a feature film.

What makes Chicken Run a successful film in my opinion is that I cared about the characters, was invested in their plight, and rooted for their safe escape. It mattered little to me that the protagonists were hens made of clay with ping-pong-ball eyes. Their story is the stuff that every good prison break movie is about: getting over the wall to paradise.

Chicken Run, part of our series Modern Matinees: An Animation Omnibus, screens on March 4 and 24 at 1:30 p.m.