Many cite the deaths of the mom in Bambi and Mufasa in The Lion King as the most traumatically sad movie moments of their childhoods. I agree on that, but another scene that I recall messing me up bad as a kid is from a film about chickens; chickens who are doomed to getting slaughtered one by one after they stop laying their monthly amount of eggs. When one of said chickens got taken from its pen, of course I expected a cute chase scene where the chicken comically escapes and the villain curses her foiled deed. Instead we hear the sound of an axe hitting a table, cue a reaction shot from the other mourning chickens. Their friend is dead. This is an early scene in Aardman Animation’s Chicken Run, a kid’s film that does not mess around.
I will, until the day I die, remember Chicken Run as the first movie I ever saw in a theatre. I will always remember how my dad had to explain to me how a movie theatre worked and what you had to do before we went into town, got our tickets and sat down in front of what I then identified as an unusually large TV. Then we saw Chicken Run, which I loved immensely then and I love even more immensely today.
The chickens in Chicken Run live on a farm in England run by the sinister Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson) and her bumbling husband named, well, Mr. Tweedy (Tony Haygarth), and every so often they attempt to escape their captivity in various different homages to The Great Escape. Their leader is the noble Ginger, voiced by Julia Sawalha, and after many escape failures she’s just about ready to give up and welcome death. But hope arrives in the form of an American circus rooster named Rocky Rhodes (Mel Gibson) who, as it seems, arrives to their farm by flying there. Injured upon arrival, he is begged by the other chickens to teach them how to fly before Mrs. Tweedy uses them for her new business idea: chicken pies. However, not everything is as it seems.
Ginger begins to develop a romantic interest towards Rocky as the film progresses. Meanwhile we get to know a colourful set of supporting characters, including an elderly rooster named Fowler (Benjamin Whitrow) who keeps boasting about his time in the RAF, a ditzy chicken named Babs (Jane Horrocks), a much more intelligent one named Mac (Lynn Ferguson), a tomboyish one named Bunty (Imelda Staunton) and Timothy Spall and Phil Daniels as a duo of sneaky rats who continuously provide Ginger with stuff she needs.
The film is directed by Nick Park and Peter Lord. Previously famous for their delightful Wallace & Gromit shorts, this is the first feature length film Aardman Animation have ever done. It is also, in my opinion, their best. I was slightly underwhelmed by Flushed Away and even their Wallace & Gromit movie, and as for The Pirates, well, you can always go read my review to see what I thought of that one.
Chicken Run, however, still holds up to this day as not only one of my favourite films from the studio, but also one of my favourite movies of all time. It has been identified by some as a kid’s film that should not actually have been a kid’s film. That’s not true. This is exactly how seriously a kid’s film should take its viewers.
The movie is distributed by Dreamworks, but it doesn’t fall into their common habit of trying a bit too hard to induce laughter each conceivable second. Chicken Run knows when to take a breather and be quiet for a while to let the character development progress and let the dramatic and atmospheric moments sink in sufficiently. I still remember how remarkably touching I found this movie as a child and how powerful I found the heavy moments, both the happy ones and especially the sad ones.
The spectacular music by John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams no doubt helped create this effect. These are tunes that aren’t gonna leave your head any time soon and even as a child, many of the tracks in Chicken Run stuck with me and I would find myself humming them many a time.
The film also succeeds in making you root for these chickens. Thanks to the aforementioned murder scene, we constantly feel that Mrs. Tweedy poses a severe threat to these poor hens and their danger feels real. Fun scenes of them interacting, especially after Rocky arrives and lightens up the mood with his party animal attitude, make the characters even more likable. And let us not forget that the stop-motion animation is, as always, incredible to look at. It is so good, you will occasionally forget that it’s a stop-motion film. For Aardman Animation, this effect isn’t all that uncommon.
Chicken Run will always be a nostalgic and meaningful movie to me. I will always admire how good the animation looks, how catchy the soundtrack is, how gripping the story is and just how edgy and dark it dares to be in spite of its status as a “kid’s film”. If you get a chance to see it, or better yet, show it to your kids, you should take it. This isn’t just a movie about talking chickens. It is an awesome movie about awesome talking chickens.