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CHICKEN RUN

Review by Michael Jacobson

Voices:  Mel Gibson, Julia Sawahla, Jane Horrocks, Miranda Richardson, Tony Haygarth, Lynn Ferguson
Directors:  Peter Lord, Nick Park
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Dreamworks
Features:  See Review
Length:  84 Minutes
Release Date:  November 21, 2000

Film ****

Chicken Run is a wild, wacky, and hysterical roller coaster ride of a movie from the creators of Wallace and Gromit.  It’s amazing to think that animators, in this day and age of CGIs, would actually have the heart, gumption and patience to create a full length film using the old fashioned claymation techniques, but that’s exactly what they’ve done, and the results are as imaginative and extraordinary as any conventional or digital form of animation you can think of.  These characters may be clay, but they’ve got pluck, pizzazz, and plenty of personality.

And what’s more, Chicken Run is the rare breed of G rated film that’s truly entertaining for both adults and kids.  The little ones will delight in the zany, comical characters with their exaggerated features, their pratfalls and hijinks, and their whimsical and distinct personalities.  Adults, on the other hand, are liable to laugh til it hurts at the same physical comedy, but also the clever puns, the homage to prison movies like The Great Escape, as well as admire the patience and technique involved in creating such an intricate film.  And both grown up and child alike aren’t likely to miss the gentle throes of pathos the movie offers, as it quietly drives home the point that life for chickens on a farm involves only two things:  laying eggs, and becoming Sunday dinner.

One hen with a notion that a better life looms beyond the fences for her and her fellow chickens is Ginger (Sawahla).  In the beginning, we see escape attempt after escape attempt foiled by the farmers, Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy (Haygarth and Richardson).  Poor Ginger keeps getting caught and put in ‘solitary confinement’ (the trash bin), but she refuses to give up.

Meanwhile, life on the farm is getting bleak.  The angular Mrs. Tweedy insists on her hens meeting a quota of egg production.  Those who don’t…well, first they kick the bucket, then they end up in one.  Soon, she hatches (no pun intended) an ever graver plan for the future of the farm:  a giant pie making machine that will take them out of the egg business and into the production of…you guessed it, chicken pies.

But hope is not lost.  Out of the midnight sky comes a potential hero in Rocky the rooster (Gibson).  Ginger and her compatriots are impressed that he can fly.  He was actually shot out of a circus cannon, but doesn’t have the notion to tell the henhouse full of ladies who are suddenly taken with him!  But the circus owners are looking for him, so he and Ginger quickly strike an uneasy bargain:  the hens will hide him, if he will teach them how to fly.

Of course, the fact that Rocky can’t really fly is fertile grounds for comic possibilities.  He trains the chickens with drills and exercises (one mimicking a famous long shot from Enter the Dragon), and tries to come up with ways to give them more ‘thrust’.  Some of these accidents waiting to happen will absolutely floor you. 

But eventually, it’s going to take more than just a few good hen if the chickens are going to fly the coop.  All of them are going to have to put their heads together, come up with a plan and make it work if they want to escape the dreaded pie machine and find a better world for themselves.

That’s the plot in an eggshell, but there is so much at work here on so many different levels, I couldn’t possibly cover them all in a short review.  For starters, I can’t praise the animation enough:  there is nothing primitive or restricted about it.  In fact, one scene involving Rocky and Ginger escaping from the clutches of the pie machine is one of the most imaginative, funny, and thrilling spectacles I’ve seen in any film, much less an animated one.  The sense of direction and characterization are both impeccable throughout, thanks in part to an amazing cast of voices, led by Mel Gibson’s spirited performance as Rocky. 

And did I mention funny?  I haven’t laughed this much or this hard at a film this year apart from High Fidelity.  Some of the comedy is visual, as in seeing a whole army of chickens doing one-armed push ups.  Others involve clever puns and innuendos, as in the way the females clamor to be the one Rocky shares a bunk with.  Or my personal favorite line, spoken by one of the rats as the failing-to-fly chickens plummet to the ground on all sides of them:  “It’s raining hen!”

Chicken Run is a delightful and perfect family film…one that will tickle the funny bone of young and old alike, as well as thrill with its imagination and sense of spectacle.

Video ****

Dreamworks never fails to disappoint in this department, and with Chicken Run, they’ve created a beautiful and flawless animated transfer to rival even their excellent DVD of ANTZ!.  Images from start to finish are sharp, clear, and nearly three dimensional in quality.  Colors are vivid and bright, with excellent containment and balance throughout.  Darker scenes, of which there are a few, exhibit no grain, break up, haze or compression artifacts of any kind.  I noticed no specks or debris on the print.  Overall, it’s a visual fiesta for your home theatre system, and an absolute reference quality one at that.  Eggs-ceptional!

Audio ****

Though a Dolby 2-channel surround is available, take my advice and choose one of the digital surrounds:  5.1 Dolby or DTS EX.  I listened to the Dolby 5.1, and found it a tremendous listening experience.  For starters, the musical score is lively and dynamic, and the orchestration opens up the sound across both stages for an immediately engrossing audio effect.  The rear channels receive plenty of discreet signals, too, to heighten the film’s many action and comic sequences.  During the strongest moments, the .1 channel kicks in for the extra bottom end.  All in all, this is one of the best animated film soundtracks I’ve heard on DVD—like the video, it, too, is reference quality all the way.  Eggs-traordinary!

Features ****

This is one loaded DVD, starting with its clever use of animated menus with sound.  For starters, you get a commentary track by co-directors Lord and Park—terrific fun.  Then you get not one, but two documentaries on the making of the film—the longer one is informative and hysterical, featuring interviews with the cast and crew, and the shorter one features many clips from the Aardman team’s other works.  There are two trailers (the second being the extremely funny Mission Impossible 2 spoof) and a TV spot (that mimics Gladiator).  There are extensive talent files and production notes, along with some DVD ROM extras.  And what better way to top off the Chicken Run disc than with eggs?  Easter Eggs, to be specific—a whole dozen of them hidden in the menu screens, revealing more tidbits and trivia about the film.  All in all, a superb package of egg-stras!

Summary:

Chicken Run is about as much fun as you can have with a DVD player.  The film is fast, funny, imaginative and delightful.  The audio and video transfers are top notch.  The extras are fun-tastic and will keep you busy for hours.  This disc is an absolute must-own…no eggs-cuses accepted!