As warming as a nice cup of tea on a cloudy day, Chicken Run
is that charming singularity, a commercially successful British family movie that has near-universal appeal without compromising its inherent British pluckiness (that will be the first and last poultry-pun in this review). It invites us into the Plasticine-world of Tweedy's farm, a far-from-free-range egg factory ruled with an axe of iron by greedy Mrs Tweedy. One intrepid chicken, Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha) sets her sights on breaking out the whole flock, a cast of beautifully individuated chicken characters including ditsy Babs (voiced by Jane Horrocks), matronly Bunty (Imelda Staunton) and practical-minded Mac (Lynn Ferguson). Each effort is thwarted, and Ginger repeatedly reaps a spell in the coal bunker for her troubles, prompting the first of many allusions to The Great Escape
, one of several World War II films name-checked throughout.(Grown-ups will have a ball playing Spot-the-Allusion Game here.) When an American rooster named Rocky (Mel Gibson) literally drops in from the air, the hens are set all a-flutter with excitement thinking he'll help teach them to fly away at last. But Rocky is not all he seems.
Although the action sags just a fraction around the 40-minute mark, it's the set pieces that really lift this into the realm of cartoon genius: the montage of inept flying attempts, Rocky and Ginger's narrow escape from Mrs Tweedy's new pie machine (an horrific contraption of chomping steel and industrial menace) and the magnificent, soaring climax. Despite the fact British animators (such as the directors, Nick Park and Peter Lord, themselves) regularly scoop Oscars for their short films, our record in full-feature length cartoons has been scrappy at best. There have been a few highlights--Animal Farm (1955), The Yellow Submarine (1968), Watership Down (1978)--and, er, that's about it really, unless you count The Magic Roundabout: Dougal and the Blue Cat. ChickenRun, made by the Aardman production house who produced the delightful Wallace and Gromit shorts among many other treats, has proved that Britain can compete with the most calculated, merchandised and screen-tested Disney production and win. --Leslie Felperin