Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Chicken Run
directors : Peter Lord and Nick Park
script : Jack Rosenthal and Karey Kirkpatrick
stars (voices) : Julia Sawalha, Mel Gibson, Miranda Richardson
I’ve never seen the appeal of Wallace and Gromit – in fact, I’m not even sure how many Ms and Ts there are in Gromit/Grommit… But even I was expecting Nick Park’s feature debut Chicken Run to be something different, something special, aimed at adults as well as children. And I’m afraid to say I was disappointed on all three counts – Chicken Run will go down best, I reckon, with the uncritical under twelves. I found it very hard to dislike, but equally hard to build up much enthusiasm about, and, two weeks on from watching it, I’m not left with many lasting impressions of the movie – though I’m sure many viewers will find it funnier and more charming than I did, and I wouldn’t dream if putting anybody off giving it a try.
It’s especially disappointing, because, like most British critics, I’d like to see Chicken Run do well, especially in America, if only to show the Hollywood studios that they don’t have a monopoly on successful animation. As it is, I’d be pleasantly surprised if the film reaches anything like the heights of, say, Toy Story 2 at the US box office, though it looks certain to be a big hit in the UK, where it has been craftily hyped over the last few months. I doubt there can be many people left who don’t know the plot, but just in case, the movie is basically The Great Escape done with chickens, using the painstaking plasticine animation technique that has provided Park with three Oscars for his shorter works. Organised by Ginger (Sawalha), the chickens decide to mount an escape bid when they discover their owner’s plans to switch from unprofitable egg production to pies – which would be very bad news for the birds. American rooster Rocky (Gibson) falls out of the sky and claims he can teach the chickens to fly to freedom – but when this idea comes crashing to earth, more ingenious methods must be devised.
Chicken Run was years in the making, and you can see the incredible amount of patient effort that’s gone into virtually every frame . But I ended up being oppressed rather than impressed by the scale of the film-maker’s accomplishment, the mind-boggling attention to detail that bringing the movie to the screen must have involved. It seems churlish to make any criticism of the finished product, but the visibly vast scale of the effort involved gives Chicken Run a kind of airlessness, a feeling that the film is too well made, especially in comparison with the work of the other current major practitioner of stop-motion in features, the relatively wayward and anarchic Jan Svankmajer, whose 1988 spin on Lewis Carroll, Alice, is streets ahead of anything Park has yet achieved.
But the main problems I have with Chicken Run are to do with the script, by Kirkpatrick – whose background is in more conventional American animated features – and veteran Brit comedy writer Rosenthal. The film’s press notes brag about how many thousands of hours were spent crafting every shot, but don’t tell us how long it took to cobble together the screenplay that is meant to showcase the animators’ talents but instead holds them back by going for a very conventional, predictable path. There’s nothing drastically wrong with the script, but there’s nothing particularly great about it either – though there are way too many limp puns on the theme of poultry – and we’re light years away from the layered ingenuities of character development to be found in recent superior animated releases such as The Iron Giant or the Toy Story sequel. And on a more general level, I’m not sure that the people behind this movie have fully thought out its premise. If it is a parody of The Great Escape, and the allusions are frequent, amusing and unambiguous, then presumably the film’s “baddies”, scheming farmowner Mrs Tweedy, her put-upon husband, and their snarling guard-dogs, are supposed to somehow parallel the Germans. Which lends a distinctly tasteless edge to the major plot development in which the farmers take delivery of a huge new mechanised pie-making machine which includes a gas oven as one of its features.
But perhaps I’m being hyper-critical. The voice-over actors – especially Sawalha – succeed in creating sympathetic, engaging characters out of the chickens, and there are many amusing moments and scenes. The first 15 minutes are, in fact, often hilarious, and the last 15 are as rousing and satisfying as you could possibly expect. But this is supposed to be a full-length feature film, and here’s hoping Park will learn that there’s a hell of a lot more involved than just a good start and a good finish.
October 23rd, 2001
(seen 22-Oct-01, UGC Boldon)
by Neil Young