Flying The Coop

Chicken Run is now playing in theaters nationwide.

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Chicken Run looks to be the first masterpiece of this millennium. It offers nothing to boggle the mind, to enlighten the soul, or to tear down the walls of pretense that we build so well. Instead, it offers a film that is so wonderfully and lovingly created, with such a general and universal premise in mind, that it will do what is almost impossible -- it will appeal to everyone.

Now, normally films that are designed to appeal to everyone are dumbed down, silly in an unintentional way, and seem to take such an effort to not offend anyone that they destroy any chance of having anything interesting or amusing to say. Chicken Run suffers from none of these things, relying on a smart script, clever characters, good voice-acting, and some awesome animation and direction from Nick Park and Peter Lord, creators of perennial Oscar favorite Wallace and Gromit. Moreover, in a summer with films that seem to be created so exactly for a target audience that they don't have to bother to do anything but draw that audience in (Dinosaur, Big Momma's House, Gone in 60 Seconds, Titan A.E., to name a few), it is extremely refreshing to see a film that relies on its level of excellence rather than its trailer. And Chicken Run certainly has a fairly high level of excellence.

The film's premise is simple. Take the genre of prison escape films, especially 1963's The Great Escape, and change all the prisoners from heroic G.I.s and the wrongly accused to chickens. And make the visual medium clay instead of live film. While the claymation is cool, the chicken aspect is really the key to this film. They're constantly caged in by fences, they live in Spartan group huts, and they are forced to produce against their will and are killed when they can no longer do so -- all the characteristics of concentration camps except in a somewhat less terrifying and inhumane situation, at least to the human perspective. Plus, they're chickens. Can you think of any creatures less equipped to do ANYTHING (BAMN members aside)? No. Chickens are stupid, ridiculous animals who can barely squak and peck, and seem as likely to execute a cleverly designed escape plan as they are to fly. They do seem likely to botch a cleverly designed plan, and botch it quite a lot. And that's what they do in this film. Oh yeah, they're all British, making it even more fun.

The film's protagonist, Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha), is a) the only intelligent chicken in the batch and the mastermind behind every escape plan, and b) disturbingly cute for a clay chicken. Of course, the fact that all her cohorts in escape are not-so-intelligent chickens, her plans are more ridiculous than workable, plus the fact that Mr. Tweedy (Tony Hagarth) and his watchdogs are more than a match for a bunch of stupid chickens, even if Mr. Tweedy isn't exactly one of history's bright lights. Ginger is frustrated, and since she can't go around, through, or under Tweedy's Egg Farm's fence, she decides that her last chance is get everyone over it.

Her unworkable plan to create a chicken catapult is brought to a halt when Yank rooster Rocky (Mel Gibson, practicing his American shtick for upcoming film, The Patriot) -- his last name being the requisite awful pun of the movie, and thankfully, the only one -- flies over the fence. A circus escapee, he has apparently mastered flight, and Ginger makes a deal with him -- he teaches them to fly out and she doesn't reveal him to the circus men who are searching for him. Rocky reluctantly agrees, but he can't show them flight cause he's hurt his arm. So until it heals, he can't teach them by example. His lessons seem odd, but he assures Ginger that he knows what he's doing, and all the other hens are too caught up by this handsome young daredevil to care.

The timetable is stepped up as Mrs. Tweedy, the real power behind the farm, has decided that eggs aren't profitable enough. Her new Rube Goldberg machine is the solution, as you simply insert chickens and you get chicken pot pie. It's a monstrosity, and sure enough, there's an escape scene with our heroes that involves it. It's hilariously done, with contraptions and mechanisms ridiculous enough to leave an engineer in tears (even a civil one). But hell, the entire movie is ridiculously done, as the film follows the standard escape film plot without real deviation, but that hardly matters -- hell, that's the point. Each chicken is developed enough to make them separately amusing, with enough incompetence to run three colleges of letters and sciences stored in each little beak. Especially amusing are a fat hen who constantly knits and can't seem to understand anything, an old rooster (the only other male besides Rocky) who relates back to his days in the Royal Air Force, and a hen with an almost incomprehensible Scottish accent. And extremely to the film's credit is Ginger's continued role as lead protagonist. Not once does Rocky take the lea,d as most films these days are inclined to do with both leading male and female roles. Rocky is a supporting role and Ginger stays the hero.

The claymation, while not stunning in itself, shows at least as much work put into it as any of the computer graphics or classical animation that you'll see this summer. It can get a little choppy, but even so it's fantastic. More important than fluidity is the design, and the animators take advantage of their medium to the fullest extent. The fat chickens are hilariously plump, and while perhaps computer graphics can simulate the bones of an animal, you get a whole lot more out of one chicken rolling its eyes or moving its beak than you do out of a whole herd of dinosaurs -- nothing you haven't seen before in terms of production, but all done absurdly well.

Chicken Run is a masterpiece because it is so well done. Yes, films such as American Beauty and The Matrix are far more likely to leave an indelible mark on the history and future of film (and deservedly so, for they innovate where this film just does everything right), and Me, Myself, and Irene (also opening this week) will probably do much better at the box office (there's enough positive buzz surrounding the film to indicate it will be a justified success), but rather than just seeing one of the two films opening this week, I suggest you see both and ignore the relative crap that's out there right now. A film like this deserves success so badly that it would be criminal for it to miss it.


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