by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary. In celebration, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full on retrospective treatment. Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.
04] Chicken Run (23rd June 2000)
Budget: $45 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Say what you want about DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, the man had vision at the start of the company’s lifespan. Let’s not forget, the company’s (planned) first film was a biblical epic the likes of which had never been attempted in animation, let alone in Hollywood at all for a good 30/40 years prior. He jumped feet first into the wholly-CG realm well before any other Pixar imitators. He got the company to throw money behind a buddy-comedy adventure that time has been much kinder to than contemporary critics and filmgoers were. He had a real vision for his animated company; he wanted to rival Disney but, quite clearly, wanted to do it on his own terms with films that weren’t just pale imitations of what Disney were churning out. He wanted an animation company that could hop from genre to genre, animation style to animation style, all aimed at a slightly older filmgoer instead of merely pacifying the youngest, but brought together under one roof with a company name that people could look at as a sign of quality, build trust in the consumer that their time and money weren’t going to be wasted.
So of course one of the first things that Katzenberg would do upon co-founding the company would be to hunt down, sign to a contract, and inject a rather large cash flow into cult British stop-motion animation company Aardman Animations. Why wouldn’t he? Prior to Katzenberg knocking on their front door, Aardman had built up quite the reputation in their near-three decade existence as Britain’s premiere animation studio with such creations as Rex The Runt, Morph and the Oscar-winning short (that would later be expanded into an ad campaign and later still full-on television series) Creature Comforts (1989). They also made the iconic music video for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” (1986) and, weeks before the DreamWorks deal was officially announced, they also released Steve Box’s stunning animated short Stage Fright (1997). But, of course, they didn’t truly start making giant waves with the public until A Grand Day Out (1989) introduced them to Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit, their household name status becoming truly assured with their follow-up shorts The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1995), which both also won Academy Awards. The company was on the brink of superstardom, all it needed was a film that could announce its presence to the world.
Again, enter DreamWorks. By the time the deal had been signed in December of 1997, Chicken Run had been in pre-production for a good year and already had the financial backing of Pathé, and the critical prestige of Aardman (and particularly Chicken Run’s three-time Oscar-winning co-director Nick Park) meant that practically every American studio with money to throw around was desperate for a piece of the pie (the box office success of Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s Anastasia a few weeks earlier, at a time when it seemed like any non-Disney animated release was a license to throw millions of dollars into a big ol’ fiery pit, may have also helped somewhat). In the end, though, Katzenberg won out through sheer, bloody-minded persistence; he’d been courting the company since he first saw Creature Comforts. It seemed like a perfect marriage, both companies even extended their deal, as Chicken Run was wrapping up production, for another four feature films. Later history would show this to be far from the case (there’s a very good reason why their new films are being released primarily by Sony Pictures Animation), although a squabble over the film’s score would offer a brief glimpse at the creative differences that both studios would dissolve into, but at the time this was basically all leading up to a fairy-tale kind of ending.
And it did. It really did. Chicken Run opened at the beginning of the Summer, with its only competition being the disastrously performing Titan A.E., entering the charts at number 2 (behind Me, Myself & Irene). The film proceeded to ride that complete lack of competition to a six week run in the Top 10, where the most it dropped between weeks was 40% in Week 5 when Pokèmon: The Movie 2000 replaced it briefly as the big new animated movie on the block, a domestic total in excess of $100 million and slightly-larger than that foreign total as well. It even out-grossed Disney’s official entry into their animated classics canon for the year, The Emperor’s New Groove, and was only kept from being the highest grossing animated film of the year by Disney’s other animated film for the year (retroactively added to their animated classics canon later on), Dinosaur. Critically, it was universally applauded, so much so that DreamWorks actually launched a campaign to get the film nominated for Best Picture. It failed, sadly (Chocolat got in over it, if you’d like a reason to get really angry today), but it has been said that the film was popular enough with Academy voters for it to lead to the creation of the Best Animated Feature award for the next ceremony. The film also failed to pick up the Annie Award for Best Animated Film because, well, it came out in the same twelve month window as Toy Story 2.
But other than the unfortunate shut-outs with regards to awards (seriously? F*cking Chocolat but not Chicken Run?), this was basically the outcome that multiple hokey underdog stories use for their feel-good endings, only in reality and fully-deserved. I was six upon the VHS release of Chicken Run and even I felt a tiny little something upon seeing the Aardman logo preluding a feature-length (not that I would have understood the full significance, obviously, I was still only six). Growing up, my parents were very generous to stock the “please, for the love of God, pacify the bugger the five minutes” VHS collection with an armada of cartoons. Disney films, BBC cartoons, Toy Story, Tom & Jerry collections, Looney Tunes collections, all that stuff, so I had a pretty early introduction to Wallace & Gromit. The beauty about them, as is the beauty with most of Aardman’s best work, is that they work on multiple levels. They’re not aimed specifically at families or children or anything like that. Like damn great movies, they just aim to tell good stories with the knowledge that everybody, regardless of age, gets something out the best stories. So, as should surprise no-one, Chicken Run ended up on regular rotation when it hit VHS. It was funny, fast, linked in terms of tone and style to Wallace & Gromit, and I always had an affinity for stop-motion animation. The fact that the DVD we eventually traded up to contained extensive clips of practically every Aardman short ever made beforehand admittedly helped matters.
The thing that I was dreading, though, upon sitting down to watch Chicken Run for this feature, the first time I have watched the film in at least 4 years, was that my earlier obsession with the film during my youth would dilute much of its impact. For the longest time I couldn’t watch any classic episode of The Simpsons because my near cult-like devotion to a Season 4 boxset that I got one Christmas, and any of the numerous showings of any episode on Sky1 and Channel 4, had stripped most of those episodes of their humour and entertainment value. There was a part of me that was worried I’d be left sitting on the outside of this film, mechanically looking at its deeper meanings and such rather than being drawn in and becoming invested in proceedings. As mentioned just a few moments ago, though, the best Aardman works work on multiple levels with the same level of enjoyment being gained no matter which level you end up looking at it at. And that ended up being true of Chicken Run, many of its jokes may have diminished from over-consumption as a child, but I was still able to be entertained because, thanks to my older age, I could truly grasp the multitude of ways the film ends up working in.
For example, the mood, structure and feel of the film are very classic. Despite being a millennial release that was in production for the entire back-half of the 90s, Chicken Run feels even older than that. The obvious comparison, primarily because it’s an affectionate parody of it, is the 1963 classic The Great Escape but it goes further than that. The whole film has the feel of classic Hollywood and, more specifically, the kind of films that crop up on Channel 4 when they need to fill a couple of hours of television time during an early weekday afternoon. I realise that that could read as an insult, but it’s really not. There’s a warm, inclusive feeling to the film that lacks from most animated films these days. Unlike, say, The House Of Magic or Planes or anything like that, Chicken Run aims at a general audience instead of just the youngest of children, and whereas that could lead to a bland or just plain lack-of-an identity it ends up working excellently. It feels classic, a film out-of-time, like if The Great Escape was made by British filmmakers and filtered through that off-beat mind-set we used to be so good at. It’s why none of the jokes feel out-of-place or tonally misjudged, whether they be a practical hurricane of poultry-based puns delivered by rats Nick and Fetcher, some well-timed physical comedy during the montage of escape attempts near the beginning of the film, or a bit where the chickens realise that they’re all for the chop and Babs knits herself a woollen noose. It all fits the all-ages mood and the British touch keeps any of them from coming off as obnoxious or ill-fitting, most of the gags being rather underplayed, really.
Speaking of that mood, of a film that feels (again, very much in a good way) older than it is, the animation, much like most of Aardman’s stop-motion creations, feels very stuck in the late 80s and early 90s. The way that the film’s imagery and colour-scheme seems rather washed-out, the low-key lighting of most scenes, I might have even seen some film grain, at points. I’d like to use the phrase “charmingly rustic”, because that’s the one that keeps sticking out in my mind right now, but I’m not sure it fully fits. It conveys the positive opinion I have, though. Many animated films, particularly in this age of CG, are often on a mission to have “the most graphics” or to just blindly copy the style of whatever the latest hot animated film was; unsurprisingly, it dates those films pretty quickly (for example, this clip from TMNT was from a film that released in 2007). Yet the Aardman style still looks pretty darn good. The decision to shoot at 20-frames-a-second instead of 24-frames-a-second in order to save money does cause a bit of a stiffness here and there, but it adds to the charm, more than anything. The works of Laika may have surpassed Aardman’s stuff technically in the years since, but there’s a cosy feel to Aardman’s productions that I like. It may have something to do with my having grown up a devoted Aardman fan (you are looking at one of, like, ten children who actually stuck with Chop Socky Chooks for more than 45 seconds), it may not, but it’s there and it’s very much a plus.
As for things that I didn’t notice until this go-around? The way the film handles scale and stakes. Chicken Run is actually really clever in this regard. The film is very small-scale, although there’s the really large cast of extras, there are only nine prominent characters and even less than that that the film expects you to full invest in. You become worried for the nameless extras because Ginger is worried for the nameless extras and because Mrs. Tweedy is an unrepentantly evil person. It gets that not every character needs a name, arc and recognisable character trait for you to be worried about their outcome; if it’s shown to be important to the main character, like how the continued survival of the chicken community in a freer land is to Ginger, and the film makes an effort to demonstrate why that’s the case, then it is expected that the audience will swiftly follow. Also helping matters is just how quickly the film sets up the price that failure to escape will have on these characters; literally the first scene after the credits montage involves the death of Edwina, played dead straight at that, showcasing just how real the stakes are to our cast. It’s splendidly well-done story work.
But that scale also manifests itself in more visual ways. What struck me first, above all else, was the shot of the camera pulling back to show the entirety of the chicken farm in one image as the title fades into view. I realised how small the map of the world’s film actually looked, how there’s very little space, how all of the huts barely looked like they could fit one chicken let alone twelve, how each of its landmarks look barely a stone’s throw away from one another. But then we switch to the viewpoint of the chickens and there seems to be real distance between huts, how the courtyard (for lack of a better term) suddenly does seem like it could support an entire herd of chickens, and how every hut actually ends up more like a TARDIS than the thing we just clapped eyes on. It should seem inconsistent, especially whenever Mr. Tweedy opens one of their roofs to inspect what’s going on, a mess of scene geography, yet strangely it isn’t. I think of the little one-take scene where Ginger is walking through the hut the other chickens are turning into a makeshift plane and my first thought doesn’t go straight to “how on earth could all of this be happening in that tiny hut?” Because the film does such an excellent job at communicating just how big the scenery and sets are and seem to the chicken cast, it makes it much easier to go along with because the film never truly breaks that scene geography, instead flitting between different viewpoints simply due to the angles and placements of camera shots. Now, in fairness, this works better in certain scenes than in others, specifically the height of the chickens compared to the Tweedys never truly feels consistent or convincing, but it’s still much less of an issue than it could have been because, again, the world is so brilliantly constructed.
I guess I should also admit that it wasn’t until this viewing that I grasped the not-exactly-subtle debts that World War II paid to its production design. Before you start laughing, I would like to remind you that it had been a very long time since I’d seen Chicken Run and that, for some utterly bewildering reason, I was never properly taught about World War II until I hit secondary school. Are you all finished judging me? Good. So the production design borrows very heavily from World War II POW camps, with some Concentration Camp elements thrown in for good measure. Now, yes, this is because the film is an affectionate parody/homage (take your pick) to The Great Escape, but it also helps bleed into the scale and stakes stuff I’d just mentioned. Although the place is never exactly an oasis, it ends up becoming rather multi-purpose, perfectly fitting the mood of whatever tone the film wants to go with. And, in practically every shot outdoors, the fact that the fence is nearly always in view creates a constant reminder of just how close freedom truly is for the cast. The fence uncomplicated but very effective in its required in-universe design, much like many POW camps. Plus, you know, there’s the fact that Mrs. Tweedy’s chicken pie machine and plan to turn all of the “vile, loathsome little” chickens into pies calls to mind The Final Solution somewhat and basically makes her Hitler. It all adds into the stakes without overriding the film too much, there’s just enough of a gap between the subtext of the WWII design and the overriding prison break narrative that one can enjoy the film without appreciating, or getting uncomfortable at, the parallels. Again: the benefits of aiming at a general audience instead of one specific group.
Of course, Chicken Run isn’t perfect. In fact, having watched it so much as a child and this being my first viewing in years actually seems to have made it easier for me to identify the flaws in the film. The plotting, specifically, is very generic and thuddingly obvious. It’s paced fantastically, something that’s not exactly a given when directors jump from shorter-form productions to feature-length (as just one example, both Inbetweeners films suffer from pacing issues), and it’s all executed with a tonne of heart and love but it still feels perfunctory at times. “And now here’s the scene where the seeming answer to everyone’s prayers appears… and now here’s the action scene where we demonstrate how much of a threat the pie machine is… and now it’s the All Is Lost Moment, complete with dramatic thunder and rain because of course.” One can call the beats to the second. It’s not much of a problem, primarily because the film instead packs a lot of fun beats into its characters to make up for the lack of originality in the plotting, but it still feels too generic; like Peter Lord & Nick Park and the film’s screenwriter, Karey Kirkpatrick (who pops up frequently throughout DreamWorks’ history; we’ll come back to him), were operating out of some kind of “My First Feature-Length Screenplay” guidebook to be safe.
Also, and maybe I’ve just been spoilt by my years of ingesting as much of the animation as I can have time for, but I think the voice acting is very hit-and-miss. On the hit side, especially on the hit side, there’s Miranda Richardson as Mrs. Tweedy (who I am just going to assume was cast purely on the back of Blackadder II because, c’mon, you know it makes sense) who plays every line damn near perfectly and her refusal to ham it up all of the time actually helps sell the character as even more threatening than she could have been. Tony Haygarth as Mr. Tweedy bumbles with half-clueless ineffectualness brilliantly, Benjamin Withrow as Fowler does a dead-on “Back in my day…” ranting old veteran voice but also manages to get that same voice to deliver sincere emotional heft when he congratulates Rocky for helping sabotage the pie machine, whilst Timothy Spall and Phil Daniels (yes, really, I was surprised too) easily slide into the snarking comic relief roles whilst still, with a little help from the script, managing to imbue the characters with actual character instead of just pun-delivery.
Where things fall down is with regards to the leads. Mel Gibson, who plays Rocky the Rooster, isn’t bad, he’s certainly far better than a man having to deliver the majority of his lines over the phone sounds like he’d be, but he does really undersell a lot of the material. His character demands for him to be more boisterous, more showy, more American than Gibson and/or the people directing his performance seem willing to go. It works for when his character development changes him to be more humble, when he develops a conscience, but less so for the time he spends otherwise. The real issue comes from Julia Sawalha, who plays Ginger. She’s really flat most of the time, there’s a lack of energy and of real emotional connection. A lot of her lines, whether they’re an upset cry to the heavens, an excited reveal of a plan, or a tender opening up to Rocky, are delivered in the same very underplayed and often-lifeless fashion and it really took me out of the experience. The same relatively-detached underplaying that worked for Mrs. Tweedy doesn’t work for Ginger; Ginger needs some heart and passion invested in her line readings which either Sawalha didn’t want to do, couldn’t achieve, or had directors who weren’t looking for them in the first place which is the wrong way to go as it turns out.
Finally, and this is the case for a lot of films in general but I still feel the need to bring it up, I don’t buy the romance between Rocky and Ginger, nor do I think it really needed to happen. I understand why everyone involved felt like it did, Rocky needs to have his shameful exit at the two-thirds mark and then needs a reason to make a big heroic return in the finale and what quicker way than to have him and Ginger become attracted to one another, but it still feels wholly unnecessary. Hell, I basically just explained the fact that it was basically done for obvious plot’s sake rather than any natural reason. Them hooking up just feels like something that everyone felt just had to occur because “that’s how these things go, I guess,” but it’s still not really an excuse. The film could have just had them turn into becoming close friends instead of lovers, the romance starts at the halfway point with a dance and then Rocky getting over his sexist tendencies and referring to Ginger by name, and it still would have worked in both a narrative and character sense. Instead, they get together because that’s how these things go and deviation from “My First Feature-Length Screenplay” was expressly forbidden in its foreword. It’s not a deal-breaker, it’s just a personal pet peeve of mine, not helped by how we’re over a decade on and this kind of thing still hasn’t really changed in the film industry.
I realise that I sound a bit down on Chicken Run, but I’m not. Really, I’m not. It’s a damn great, often brilliant film and one that certainly justifies the love, acclaim and fairy-tale ending to the pre-2000s Aardman Animation story. The effects still hold up especially so since they’ve been bettered, the jokes still pack some laughs that a childhood of running the VHS on loop couldn’t suck the entertainment from, the setpieces are entertaining and exciting, and the film’s mood is endlessly relaxing and charming, the kind that is often lacking from most animated films nowadays. Again, I was worried that revisiting this film would only result in a souring of the memories, but the refusal to just stick to one specific age-group (and the fantastic work that’s put into making that not create a tone that wildly slides all over the place) ends up showcasing even more aspects of its brilliance and discovering other, newfound reasons as to why it works. It turns out that it’s not an outstandingly amazing film (unless the re-watch significantly lowers its quality, I have a feeling that Curse Of The Were-Rabbit will be closer to that), but it still succeeds at more than enough things, and its whole is great enough, for me to feel comfortable in the legacy that it’s established.
Chicken Run proved to be the breakthrough smash-hit that Aardman Animations deserved, a runaway critical and financial smash that forcibly announced their presence to the world outside of the UK. For DreamWorks Animation, it was just the success they needed to counter-act the undeserving failure of The Road To El Dorado. Of course, it wasn’t primarily produced by them and many may have wondered if DreamWorks were actually capable of long-term staying power on their own terms. Their next animated feature would silence those critics immediately, firmly put the company on the animated map, and completely re-invent and re-shape the animated landscape for almost the entire decade afterward, for better and worse.
But before we get to that, we have to take a quick detour into direct-to-video land for a prequel to The Prince Of Egypt. Next week, we shall take a look at Joseph: King Of Dreams, the sole direct-to-video entry in the DreamWorks Animation canon.
A brand new instalment in DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST.
Callum Petch guesses it’s seen the sparks a-flowin’. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!