About nine years ago, in a humble Redondo Beach nightclub, urbane British folk singer Billy Bragg reappraised 20th-century politics -- as is often his socialist wont -- by means of an intriguing correlation. Might it be, he postulated, that contemporaries Leon Trotsky and Harlan Sanders were not merely striking doppelgängers but, in fact, the same person? Consider, he continued, the goatee, those glasses and the suspicious lack of photos depicting the two cavorting together. Could the assassination in Mexico have been a clever ploy, generated to conceal subversive policies being smuggled into the conservative U.S. by the so-called Colonel Sanders, by way of the fried fowl of Kentucky? For Bragg, the obvious clincher was the primary color in KFC's advertising campaign: red.
What seemed like a toss-off theory at the time -- Original Recipe Revolution -- receives a fresh angle and splendid realization in Chicken Run, the first feature film from England's Aardman Animation and the first truly terrific film to be released by DreamWorks. Directed by plasticine geniuses Peter Lord ("Adam," "Wat's Pig") and Nick Park ("Creature Comforts," "The Wrong Trousers") and produced by both men with Aardman co-founder David Sproxton, the movie is as much fun as The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach combined, minus the sociopathic cynicism even Tim Burton seems to be outgrowing of late. In its stead, Chicken Run conjures witty whimsy much like the stuff that vanished with Jim Henson a decade ago.
For the record, I am mad about chickens and their rights, so trust me when I relate that Aardman does chicken right. There are many chickens in our world -- stretching from the baseball diamonds of San Diego around a planet littered with McNuggets boxes -- but never before has the intimate realm of the squat, noble creature received such a poignant portrayal. Yes, echoes of Karl Marx, Upton Sinclair, Thomas More and even classic war films abound (the main hut is No. 17, as in Stalag), but don't be put off by Chicken Run's lofty allusions; instead, revel in the sight of flightless birds with fat haunches and pretty teeth consorting with conniving rats disguised as garden gnomes. You'll be the better for it.
Despite some wit designed exclusively for overworked adults (confronted with the prospect of laying eggs all her life, climaxing in being plucked, stuffed and roasted, one oblivious hen chimes, "It's a living!"), the plot of Chicken Run should be comprehensible to all children above the age of zygote. Somewhere in England in the 1950s exists Tweedy's Egg Farm, a drab and desolate labor camp for young ladies of the fowl persuasion. The thick, unpleasant Mr. Tweedy (Tony Haygarth) patrols the grounds with his hounds, while the stiff, cruel Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson) greedily scrutinizes eggs and profits. In the midst of their leering, the eternally hopeful hen Ginger (Julia Sawalha) gazes on the green hills beyond the trenches and chicken wire, dedicated to freeing not only herself but also her somewhat less coordinated flock.
Ginger's is a communal heart, and once she has observed a sister being decapitated and eaten for not meeting her ovular quota, she steps up her efforts to save her neighbors, enlisting brainy Scottish Mac (Lynn Ferguson) to engineer possible escapes, which include a wrenching demonstration of a large turnip -- cleverly disguised as a chicken -- being flung headlong to its doom from a makeshift trebuchet. For parts and supplies, Ginger trades with a couple of shifty, egg-lusting rats, Nick (Timothy Spall) and Fetcher (Phil Daniels), who complain that their compensation is "chicken feed." Big mama Bunty (Imelda Staunton) and the delightfully naïve Babs (Jane Horrocks) round out the primary poulets, with the crotchety RAF veteran Fowler (Benjamin Whitrow) serving as the camp's patriarch and morale monitor ("Cock-a-doodle-doo!" he dutifully intones in deadpan English before the morning inspection).
Enter the flying rooster, a Rhode Island Red named Rocky (Mel Gibson) whose bantam strutting reveals an obnoxious Yank to the veddy British Ginger. On the lam from a circus, Rocky is a selfish and reluctant wanderer (in other words, an ideal hero-in-the-making) and claims to know how to fly. Convinced that the bullheaded cock can free the hens (despite Fowler's protestations: "Pushy Americans! Always showing up late for every war!"), Ginger persuades the jaunty chanticleer to teach her and her coopgirls to fly. Before long, Rocky has the girls practicing what appears to be tai chi'cken and readying themselves to soar to freedom. Good timing, too, because the malevolent Mrs. Tweedy has stumbled upon a brochure titled "Sick and Tired of Making Minuscule Profits?" and purchased a frightening contraption: Chickens go in, and pies come out. Her poor, repressed husband, ever the bright bulb, asks, "What kind of pies?"
Aardman has another winner here, and fans of Wallace and Gromit or Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" video will not be disappointed. Rife with unlikely devices and wildly inventive slapstick (Mac's insistence on the importance of "throost" leads to chickens scattered in inelegant disarray, summed up by the rats as "sunny-side up, over easy, scrambled," etc.), the movie is an expansion on the concentrated brilliance of, say, the mechanical pantaloons of "The Wrong Trousers" or the sheep-shearing device of "A Close Shave." If you didn't like those, you won't like this, but if you didn't like those, you're also probably not human.
The sweetest aspects of the movie are its abundant wry subtleties, like Babs knitting a noose when hope seems lost, or Rocky assessing Mac's impenetrable burr: "I swear she ain't usin' real words!" Also, as in the first few Muppet movies, the Babe films, or Terry Jones' The Wind in the Willows, Chicken Run does not err by forcing us to patronize patronizing "family" entertainment. (For instance, one of the rats zestfully informs us that eggs emerge from chickens' bums. Good to know.) Boasting incredibly articulate models and a sophisticated cast, the movie maintains itself as a jovial good time for smart people. The classic Warner Bros. cartoons were (and, in some cases, still are) brilliantly inspired, but these evolved creatures make Foghorn Leghorn sound like a Jim Crow mutation. When Brit Ginger and Yank Rocky strive to bridge their cultural gap (and go for a little beak), the appeal is universal.
And is it funny? Apparently so, because Simpsons creator Matt Groening sat in front of me and chortled with abandon, especially at Mrs. Tweedy's shameless billboard, which features a perversely calm chicken poking its head out of a pie. The movie also hits its highs when it echoes the humane giddiness that first welcomed another cartoonist, Gary Larson, onto the scene. When Mr. Tweedy lifts the roof off the coop to discover all the chickens wide-eyed, brandishing his tools, it sounds the same note as the casual cows of "The Far Side" warning one another of approaching cars. There's something infinitely satisfying about the concept that animals know much more than they let on, and the radical organizing of Chicken Run gleefully blurs the line between species. Vive la révolution!
Opens June 23.