Ahhh, Chicken Run. The moment when the world outside
came to recognise the national treasure that is Aardman Animations – who had
honed their craft on the brilliant Wallace and Gromit shorts (this being
before The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) and the inspired Creature
Comforts, netting a batch of short-form Oscars. With Chicken Run,
they partnered with Dreamworks and were thus able to reach a much wider
audience, and in the process reminded the world that clay animation was still
feasible and didn’t have to be as clunky as Pingu or as outright creepy
as Mark Twain. Helped along, of course, by the stop-motion success that
was The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Sadly, the success of this and the Wallace and Gromit film led to Aardman then going into CG, which started with attempts to recapture their clay style with Flushed Away and then a more halfway measure in Arthur Christmas and The Pirates! before early work on The Croods, which ultimately ended up a very long way from signature Aardman. Since becoming just another CG studio, they have rather lost their charm, their financial opportunities and, well, their way. Sure, their Shaun the Sheep mini-episodes probably keep them well afloat, and every Christmas sees plentiful re-runs of all their films – which is why I’m rewatching Chicken Run for the first time since its 2000 release – and mostly things are very quiet on the Aardman front now, with the latest project being Peter Lord’s Kickstarter for new episodes of Morph that may not even fall under the Aardman banner, and just possibly a big comeback in 2015 with a Shaun the Sheep feature film.
Treading similar ground to Leafie but with a lot less melancholy seriousness and a lot more silly fun and escape-movie themes, Chicken Run is about battery hens who know that when they stop laying, they face the chopping block, so plot to escape. The possibility of getting away suddenly becomes real when into the coop flies a brash American rooster named Rocky – in a stroke of genius casting played by Mel Gibson – who has been promoted by a travelling circus as able to fly. His wing is injured, but a plot is hatched – so to speak – to get him to teach the rest of the chickens to fly so that they can get out. Unfortunately, the time of his arrival also coincides with the sinister farm owner Mrs Tweedy deciding that it’s time for her chickens to stop being egg-layers, and start being slaughtered en mass.
The thing Aardman used to get so right was their humour. What is brilliant about the writing of Chicken Run is that every single sympathetic character can be taken seriously or can be very funny. Main characters Ginger and Rocky are mostly the serious, smart ones on the cast, but their prickly relationship provides some great laughs, and behind Rocky’s façade he’s a guy that will fall into every pie. Wise-cracking rats played by Timothy Spall and Phil Daniels echoing the TV roles that made them famous are in the traditional annoying-comic-relief role, yet are just the right mixture of wise-cracking and ending up the butt of the joke that they are actually appealing. The chickens themselves are a great bunch, with broad stereotypes aplenty yet – again – the chance for the writers to make each of them serious. Jane Horrocks and Imelda Staunton obviously have a great time as two very silly chickens, and Mr Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, Benjamin Whitrow, is the moody old military rooster who when he shows his soft side gets one of the finest scenes in the film. And then there’s Miranda Richardson being deliciously evil as Mrs Tweedy, with another comic foil in the form of Mr Tweedy, very hard to write as non-annoying but who works thanks to the good joke of him constantly seeing the most outlandish things without anybody believing him.
So for all this praise, why have I not wanted to rewatch Chicken Run in over a decade, or consider it alongside The Wrong Trousers as amongst the best of Aardman? Well, the thing is…I think it’s just the chickens. They’re well-written, they’re likeable, they’re funny…but they’re still rather funny-looking plump chickens with teeth and silly googly eyes…and while I’m amused by them, that’s not the extent of the connection I make with most beloved animated characters – including, yes, Wallace and Gromit.
But on the rewatch, I think I’ve probably been mistaken. This is a film that does everything it can right, given the concept, and it’s such a very Aardman concept that I really don’t feel I can complain about that. Ultimately, the only real shame about Chicken Run is that the place it put Aardman doesn’t feel like where they belong.