When the future denizens of Planet Earth leaf through the annals of history and arrive at the year 2000, which artifact of UK culture will be hailed the most significant? The first series of Big Brother? Kevin & Perry Go Large? S Club 7’s ‘Reach’? It’s hard to pick a favourite, but the new millennium also brought us a plucky animated film from a small British studio then best known for their zany plasticine shorts featuring a man with a penchant for cheese and his long-suffering dog.
Chicken Run was the first attempt by Aardman Animations to make a feature film, at a time when the industry was turning largely towards computer animation in the post-Toy Story world. Even with Aardman veterans Nick Park and Peter Lord on directing duties, few could have predicted that a film best summarised as Dambusters in a chicken coop would leave such a lasting legacy. Chicken Run is still the highest grossing stop-motion animated film of all time, beating out stiff competition from Henry Selick’s Coraline and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox.
Set on a failing poultry farm in Yorkshire, there’s an inherent, intangible Britishness to the film that provides a sense of warmth in the same way that Yorkshire Tea and HP Sauce do. Borrowing heavily from The Great Escape, it frames a rag-tag group of misfits as the Davids to a cold, menacing, very much human Goliath. There’s a very real threat within the film – their plight is truly a matter of life or death, established early on when Edwina, a chicken who fails to produce enough eggs, is given the chop. It’s macabre, but Aardman have never shied away from mild peril: the eerie, silent villain Feathers McGraw in Wallace and Gromit’s The Wrong Trousers is a testament to that.
Such a desperate situation requires a fearless leader, which Chicken Run finds in the tenacious Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha). Beyond Ginger, her poultry posse is a defined, colourful bunch, with distinct personalities and interests – there’s Babs (Jane Horrocks), never seen without her knitting, Mac (Lynn Ferguson), an engineering whiz, and Bunty (Imelda Staunton), the level-headed sceptic who all-but accepts her fate as lunch with a resigned nihilism.
The film easily passes the Bechdel test, and although there is a romance between Ginger and the rooster Rocky, it’s completely at Ginger’s initiation. She rebuffs Rocky’s flirting and sees him only as a means to escape the farm. In fact, the male characters in Chicken Run consistently prove themselves to be oafish. Rocky, in an attempt to rescue Ginger, ends up being saved by her, while old-timer Fowler is revealed to have massively exaggerated about his Royal Air Force experience. Even the film’s villainess (Miranda Richardson’s delightfully malevolent Mrs Tweedy) is a shrewd businesswoman, married to the bumbling Willard. It’s impressive – if not also slightly depressing – to see chickens afforded more agency and autonomy than most female characters are.
It’s not just the strong female characters that make Chicken Run an enduring delight. Aardman’s unmistakable, painstaking attention to detail is a constant marvel. Masters of combining absurd visuals with dry and self-deprecating humour, one infinitely quotable moment sees Babs remarking after a near-death experience, “My whole life flashed before my eyes. It was really boring.” Even John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams’ score (influenced by Elmer Bernstein’s music for The Great Escape) manages to capture the mad-cap blend of humour and peril, elevating humble chickens to lofty heights with soaring symphonies and a swarm of buzzing kazoos. It’s absurdism at its British best.
The average life expectancy for a chicken on a poultry farm is less than two years – this summer the titular birds of Aardman Animations’ first feature-length film turn 18. In the intervening years, the Bristol-based studio have produced six more features, but it’s Chicken Run that truly endures. Aardman’s fingerprints are all over the plasticine, literally and figuratively. Each minute of footage took the makers a week to animate, and such an investment of time and resources is a testament to Aardman’s belief in what they do.
Such dedication and love for the craft of hand-made filmmaking translates onto the screen, reminding us that a film about chickens with wanderlust is never really just about chickens with wanderlust. Instead, it’s an earnest testament to dreams, self-belief, and friendship – themes that are so universal, there’s plenty of life in the old birds yet.
Published 21 Jan 2018
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