Since the beginning of time (or at least the domestication of animals), the chicken has been man's feathered enigma. Like so many of its feathered friends, it has fallen into the realm of the metaphor (i.e. "He's a chicken."). Unlike so many of its edible counterparts, it has survived the hassles of religious communities unscathed (no one will persecute you for eating a chicken wing). It has found its way into the realm of ontological questions (which came first: the chicken or the egg), as well as into sanguine curiosity (why does a chicken continue running around after you cut its head off?). It has become the basic standard for all foods (tastes like chicken). It has changed with the times, entering the debate about genetic engineering (see the accusations against KFC using frank-n-roosters). It has even, through its progeny, entered into the world of our children (I do not like green eggs and ham, I do not like them Sam I am). As long as civilization has existed, the chicken has haunted our collective hubris with its often-charming idiocy.
Amongst both edible entrees and feathered friends, the chicken is the idiot God...
... or not.
In fact, let's admit it: there's nothing interesting about chickens. Even at a petting zoo, your four year old would rather take the chance of having his shirt chewed up or being spit upon by a llama than bother at all with the chicken. These dumb animals simply run away whenever you get more than five feet from them and, after those few minutes of chasing chickens at the petting zoo when you are in your younger years, your fascination with chickendom cracks like an egg broken for the omelet. So even after seeing Peter Lord and Nick Park's feature debut, Chicken Run - by far the single smartest family animation feature I have seen since Toy Story - I still wonder what the hell enticed these guys into crafting a story about chickens in the first place.
I don't know why they did it, and I probably never will. All I know is that I am glad that they did.
Chicken Run, a version of The Great Escape with Ginger (Julia Sawalha) taking over the part of Steve McQueen, tells the story of a farm full of chickens at the Audubon-Auschwitz of the Tweedy egg farm. At the Tweedy egg farm, things are fairly routine... try to escape when you can and lay your eggs, or it's off to the chopping block for you. Ginger doesn't like this life, and dreams of living anywhere outside of the farm. Baba (Jane Horrocks) is a complete lemming and has no trouble following anyone, but believes that whenever Ginger is put in solitary confinement (the trash can) she is on holiday. Fowler (Benjamin Whitrow), a former RAF rooster, reminisces about the good old days of fighting Jerry.
Meanwhile, inside of the farm, Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson) focuses herself on transforming the slave labor camp into a full-blown death camp (by use of a pie machine) while Mr. Tweedy (Tony Haygarth) tries (and fails) to outsmart the chickens. Everything continues along said routine until Rocky the Flying Rooster (Mel Gibson) arrives, having accidentally hit the weathervane on a misfire from the circus. His arrival gets Ginger cooking, and pretty soon she lays the golden egg that may lead to freedom from the farm... they will fly out.
Numerous attempts to do this fail, laughs ensue, and the movie speeds along at a chipper pace towards a conclusion that makes the rocket sequence in Toy Story look like child's play.
Chicken Run's main strength as a family film comes in its ability to seamlessly meld humor that can pander to the children and not go under adult heads and give more intellectual parodies to adults that will still seem funny to children, and it does this by always being aware of just how bizarre a version of The Great Escape with poultry in it really is (i.e. the advertised line "I don't want to be a pie" is followed by "I don't even like gravy.").
In the realm of claymation, Chicken Run finds itself only in the company of itself and other Oscar nominees. 1999's Humdrum (Peter Lord and Nick Park's Oscar-nominated short), in which shadow puppets played with shadow puppets, had the same level of detail in character animation, whereas 1998's More (Mark Osborne's (Dropping Out) Oscar-nominated short) featured the same level of detail in claymation sets and lighting. However, Chicken Run marks the first time near-perfection in both arenas has come together to form near-perfect claymation... it raises the bar for the genre as a whole.
Of course realistic animation isn't the point with claymation, so don't expect Chicken Run's chickens to look like the ones you pick up at the store: therein lies the source of their charm. While the average chicken may hold as much interest to you as a dead duck, this film's chickens are well-defined characters that make you laugh, feel worry for them, and then laugh even more.
All that, and you only get one "chicken and the egg" joke.
What more can you ask?