I was amazed to realise that Aardman’s first full-length production (after the Wallace & Gromitt shorts) was as long ago as 2000: what a different world we lived in then! It’s an astounding technical achievement, considering that it’s made in stop-go animation, and I’d call it flawless but for the fact that nothing is ever absolutely perfect, only in all this time I’m yet to see a flaw.
The concept is simple but one of genius. It’s a World War 2 Concentration Camp movie, complete with escape, only instead of British prisoners, it’s a farm in Yorkshire populated by plastiscene chickens who look nothing on earth like chickens. Put like that, it sounds potentially awful, with a high risk of cheapening the experience of the real-life POWs, yet with Nick Parks as its presiding spirit, the whole thing is carried off with a straightfaced realism that only makes the film even funnier.
Respect for the form enables the parodies to be even stronger, a point I’ve made several times now, but which bears repeating for the hard of thinking. The script, and Nick Parks’ ingenuity in creating visuals, wastes no opportunity to cram in clever gags, riffs and references. There are, of course, some overt parodies: Rocky’s late run riffs off Steve McQueen in The Great Escape when he flies over the fence, pedaling furiously on a kid’s tricycle, and Ginger’s already played the Cooler King part, bouncing a sprout off the wall and floor of the coalbin. But over and again, something smart, funny, absurd will just flash by in the background, or a corner of the screen, and you roar with laughter as you recognise it.
The film pulls off a coop (heh heh, coup, sorry) in snagging Mel Gibson to play Rocky the Rhode Island Red, though he’s surrounded by a host of British voices, mainly female, that you wouldn’t normally expect to do voiceover work. Everybody does a brilliant job, and the aptness of every voice to the plasticene grotesques they portray is a tribute to the casting office as much as it is to the designers. Julia Sawalha is perfect as Ginger, the late Benjamin Whitrow a hoot as Fowler, the farm cockerel and a stick-in-the-mud old-style RAF officer (mascot brigade), and I love Jane Horrocks in anything, let alone her performance as the permanently muddled Babs.
Aardman are even confident enough to throw in a chicken-and-egg argument for the film’s coda, running on into a post-credit scene, which sums up just why Chicken Run is so bloody funny.
The film was another of those, like The Princes Bride, where we saw a clip from it on Barry Norman’s Film 2000 at John M’s house, after an evening at the Crown & Anchor. The bit where Fowler exclaimed ‘The turnip’s bought it!’ had us in fits and cemented the desire in all of us to see it as soon it was out.
When that happened, I remember asking my professional partner if he was going to see it. he looked at me almost in amazement, and asked why he’d want to see something made up out of plasticene. There are people who can’t see beyond the surface, and who cannot understand the appeal of something that is so obviously ‘not real’. The best thing about Chicken Run is that for eighty minutes it involves you in a story made up out of artificial material designed in a way that no living or natural thing has ever looked, and whilst the implausibility of the characters is itself an essential part of the fun, it brings you into this life and engages you in a story that is literally life and death for those who go through it. You believe in it.
It’s a perfect illustration of the aphorism I coined thirty-odd years ago: the irreducible requirement of fiction is that it must make you care about something that never happened to someone who never existed.
Shall I watch it again?