Chicken Run
directed by Peter Lord & Nick Park
(Dreamworks, 2000)

It's tough to find a decent movie to take young children to these days. You might take a chance on one that seems OK, only to find it has behavior and/or language that you just don't want your wee one reproducing in front of Grandma, or the humor is so dependent on various bodily functions that your eyes roll all the way back in your head and you have to sit in the theater for 20 minutes until you can see well enough to drive home. Conversely, you might find yourself at an insipid picture full of sweetness and light which will cause the eye-rolling effect anyway, unless your sharply elevated blood sugar does you in first.

Thank goodness for Chicken Run. We all enjoy the Wallace and Gromit short films, so it seemed a sure thing for my daughter's 6th birthday treat -- and a treat it is.

Life is grim for the inmates at Tweedy's egg farm. Crowded into drab bunkers and secured behind barbed wire, the hens must produce eggs or face the "chopper" when the Wellington-booted Mrs. Tweedy strides in for inspection along with the hen-pecked Mr. Tweedy.

One hen, Ginger, is desperate to escape. No birdbrain, she's clever enough to get away by herself. Ginger, however, has enough pluck to want to rescue everyone, and the other hens flock to her strategy meetings where she hatches her plans. Unfortunately, the other chickens are too feather-brained, and each plan fails miserably, landing Ginger in solitary confinement.

Then into her life drops -- literally -- Rocky, an American rooster who seems to have flown into the yard. Ginger convinces Rocky to teach them all how to fly. But when Rocky isn't all that he's cracked up to be, Ginger comes up with another plan, and none too soon -- because the Tweedys have acquired a huge machine dedicated to the production of chicken pies. Aided by a cheesy pair of rats, Ginger and the rest of the henyard race against the clock and greedy Mrs. Tweedy -- who should know better than to count her chickens before they're, er, baked.

The claymation animation is superb, chock full of little details that add expression and interest, fleshing out and enriching the film. (Keep your eyes peeled for the caber toss.) The amount of work that went into its 84 minutes is mind-boggling, especially in some of the segments. But the most remarkable thing about it is that you don't sit there thinking about it -- you believe in these chickens, pearls, kerchiefs, little knitted hats and all.

The plot spoofs World War II movies, including The Great Escape, Star Trek, the Indiana Jones series and much more. (I'm sure there were references I missed.) The chicken characters are endearing: Ginger, voiced by Julie Sawalha, is sweet and feisty, while Lynn Ferguson gives Mac, the chicken engineer, a Scottish accent strong enough to steam a haggis in. Jane Horrocks is delightfully flighty as the bubble-brained Babs, while Imelda Staunton is uproarious as the indomitable Bunty. Mel Gibson gives Rocky just the right amount of slick while Benjamin Whitrow is at once poignant and hilarious as resident rooster Fowler, who can't stop re-living his glory days in the Royal Air Force. On the other side of the fence -- literally -- Tony Haygarth is wonderful as the voice of the hangdog Mr. Tweedy and Miranda Richardson's Mrs. Tweedy makes the Wicked Witch of the West look like a Girl Scout. (Or should I say Girl Guide?)

There's action, adventure, humor and romance -- indeed, something for everyone. If you're one of the eleven people who hasn't seen this movie yet -- make it part of your plan for the week now.

Oh -- as for my daughter, at the end of the movie, she hugged me and said "This was the best birthday treat in the world." I'm more than inclined to agree!

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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Also read about Brian Sibley's book Chicken Run: Hatching the Movie.