Barbed wire. Wooden barracks. Muddy terrain. Gleaming black leather boots on the feet of a merciless captor who chooses which prisoner will go to the slaughterhouse this day. Yes, Tweedy's Farm -- the home to hundreds of cluckers in the $42 million claymation delight "Chicken Run" -- is a place that might remind some viewers of the historical accounts of P.O.W. compounds in Nazi Germany or, worse, of its concentration camps.
The pointedly dreary setting, though, makes an apropos contrast to the high-strung antics of the wondrously lively critters who populate the first full-length feature from Nick Park, Peter Lord and Aardman Animations, the British studio responsible for the Oscar-winning "Wallace and Gromit" shorts. It's a funny, spirited adventure, one perfectly suited to young audiences yet spiked with knowing humor that's sure to appear to adults. (Notice the numerous references to 1963's "The Great Escape.")
The success of any animated film can be measured by our memories of the movie several days later. In retrospect, do the "actors" come off as frame-at-a-time creations or creatures made of flesh and blood?
For the answer, look no further than Mrs. Tweedy, an evil English poultry farmer out to fatten up her fowl for use in a chicken-pot-pie business. As voiced by Miranda Richardson, she really does seem like the Wicked Witch of the West reborn. Rocky the Flying Rooster (Mel Gibson), a.k.a. the "Lone Free Ranger," is as brash, funny and self-centered as any reluctant hero of the human variety. And Ginger (Julia Sawalha of TV's "Absolutely Fabulous") is eminently convincing as the eternal optimist, a clumsy striver with a good heart and the determination to lead her feathered friends to the paradise of freedom. How could Homo sapiens versions of these characters improve on the originals?
Ginger's passion for escape grows stronger after Rocky literally drops in on his new pals in Yorkshire. The emancipatory fervor eventually spreads to all the coopmates, including the slightly cuckoo Babs (Jane Horrocks), the tough Bunty (Imelda Staunton), the stressed-out Mac (Lynn Ferguson) and even Fowler (Benjamin Whitrow), a crusty old rooster who brags about his days with the Royal Air Force.
Their American friend sets to work, putting the would-be conspirators through calisthenics, aerobics and a particularly energetic session of rock & roll dancing. (At a recent screening, the latter segment had the kids jumping out of seats and twisting to the rhythms.)
Thrust is their most serious problem. Unlike Rocky, who "flew" in courtesy of a circus cannon, these birds won't have the luxury of a big blast to send them beyond the barbed wire. It's up to Anglo-American ingenuity to save the day.
As plans are hatched, romance blooms; even in a chicken coop, matters of the heart have a habit of fighting their way to the top of the pecking order. Like this blissful collaboration between Aardman and presenter DreamWorks Pictures, the result is a marriage made in heaven.
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