It is with some reluctance that I add my voice to the chorus of praise that has greeted Chicken Run, the latest from Nick Park’s and Peter Lord’s Aardman animation shop (now operating under the aegis of DreamWorks). It would have been more satisfying to think of this film as I had grown used to thinking of its brilliant predecessors in “clay-mation,” the great “Wallace and Grommit” series (A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers, A Close Shave)—that is as almost a secret, a connoisseur’s pleasure to be recommended to discerning friends but not intended for the base multitude. Well, the base multitude has got it now and even if the first collaboration with DreamWorks (which gave the film a budget of $45 million or 15 times the cost of all three Wallace and Gromit films put together) has not spoiled Park and Lord yet, one cannot but tremble for their artistic souls now that so much temptation has been put in their way.
What I liked best about Chicken Run is also what is most impressive about the Wallace and Gromit shorts, namely that it goes against the grain of most cartoons by leavening its fantasy with a healthy dose of reality. The usual world of cartoons is one in which anything can happen, where all the limitations we are most familiar with in the real world (beginning with gravity) are suspended at will. This kind of thing can be intermittently funny, but it is intellectually fatiguing. We soon lose interest (at least we do if we have adult intelligences and sensibilities) in fantasy without boundaries. It is, as Robert Frost said about vers libre, like playing tennis with the net down. But the Aardman fantasies, however wacky they may be in every other way, manage to persuade us that they are like reality in imposing ineluctable limitations and impassible boundaries on their characters’ transactions with their crazy world.
Thus in Chicken Run, although fantasy is given free rein to produce chickens that talk, dance, quarrel, wear clothes and jewelry like human beings and are similarly aware of the prospect of their own deaths, those deaths are still something real and final, just as they are in life. When a chicken gets her head cut off, she does not grow a new one as Sylvester the Cat or the Coyote would. These chickens have hands and binocular vision and, above all, teeth (hen’s teeth being like every other kind of teeth crucial to the creation of the varied facial expressions that are the essence of clay-mation), but the fact that chickens cannot fly is never fudged, even though the film is all about their fleeting belief that they can.
A lesser cartoonist would have taken this hilarious adaptation of The Great Escape to the barnyard—one in which a brash American rooster called Rocky (voice of Mel Gibson) undertakes to teach a flock of English hens how to fly in order to escape their rendezvous with the pie-machine of the farmer’s wife, Mrs Tweedy (voice of Miranda Richardson)—and had the hens actually learning to fly. It would be a small enough achievement, after all, in comparison with the miracles that cartoon characters regularly perform. But the bedrock reality of their inability to do so, or to perform other, more outrageously impossible cartoon feats, constantly contributes to the humor of their presentation as part chicken and part human.
For instance, it allows Park and Lord not only to present Rocky as a sort of P.T. Barnum or Professor Harold Hill (at one point he tells the chickens to “keep thinking those flighty thoughts”), one in the great tradition of American charlatans, and the chickens’ leader, Ginger (voice of Julia Sawalha), as alternately seduced by and indignant at him. But in order for them to circumvent this natural limitation it also produces a fantastical feat of chicken engineering that is much funnier than seeing them fly on their own wings. The airplane that they build is the counterpart of the almost equally fantastical contraption of the pie-machine, within which Rocky and Ginger have a Wallace and Gromit-like adventure, and both exploit the clay-mation affinity for technology run amuck.
The film’s emphases with regard to time and place and circumstance—the Americanness of Rocky, the Englishness of the hens, the 1940s or 1950s vintage radios and advertisements and slang—leaves no room for doubt that the chickens are stand-ins for real people. But, paradoxically, this allows them the freedom to be more chickenish. Or, rather, it makes the comparison between human and chicken behavior even more striking and funny. Thus the stupidity of Babs (voice of Jane Horrocks) is characteristic of chickens, as the film reminds us, but it is also a dead ringer for human habits of self-deception, as when Babs speculates that her sisters who have been taken away and eaten have gone “on holiday.” Ginger tries to motivate her by asking if she is satisfied with a life which involves “laying eggs every day until you can’t lay anymore; and then you are killed and eaten.”
“It’s a living,” says Babs. But if this is typically short-sighted, is there not also a certain peasant wisdom to it?
Much of the humor of the film comes from its allowing us to be swept away by the fantasy, whether that of the chickens as human or that of its amazing machinery, and then bringing us sharply back to earth. It is funny that the old rooster, Fowler (voice of Benjamin Whitrow) should be presented as an RAF veteran of “the 644 Poultry division,” constantly grumbling about the “Yank,” Rocky. But when the airplane finally gets off the ground and he is asked to pilot it he has to break the news that he doesn’t know how.
Ginger, aghast, asks, “Didn’t you fly?” in the RAF.
“Of course not,” says Fowler reasonably enough. “I’m a chicken. They didn’t let us behind the controls of these things.”
In addition, there are the great (or awful) puns we have learned to expect from the Wallace and Gromit series—“Attila the Hen” and “Poultry in Motion” and so forth. But in a way the best thing about it is the very human character of Farmer Tweedy (voice of Tony Haygarth), who is bossed around (hen-pecked, as we used to say) by the Missus and made by her to doubt his own perceptions that the chickens are trying to escape. “It’s all in me ‘ead,” he keeps insisting to himself, right up until the moment of the astonishing flight of the chicken airplane. Thereupon he triumphantly announces to Mrs Tweedy: “I told ya they was organized!” This mixture of amazement at the evidence of his own eyes and satisfaction at his own vindication in the escape, in spite of himself, is not unlike what we feel, his rather plodding and thick-witted humanity like our own when set against the background of these wonderful chickens.