Well, as I recently mentioned with my looks at the Pixar short film collections, a friend of mine liked it so much that she shared it across the social networks. I was reading some of the comments on it, and there was one that stuck in my craw. That comment was along the lines of, "I don't know why people make such a big deal about American animation anyway." I'm familiar with that comment. It's the common lament of the otaku...the anime snob, who believes that the only animation worth watching comes from Japan. It brought me back to my time in Japan, when I was discussing some of my favourite anime with one of my students. After I finished exulting the brilliance of Ranma 1/2, she just looked at me with a befuddled expression and said, "You know it's all for kids, right?"
But rather than get bitter about seeing the otaku's lament once again, as I'd thought the last I heard at it was at the Augustana Anime Club back in my college days, I figured I should look overseas for my next selection. I decided to grab what I still think is one of the funniest animated movies ever made. Yup, I decided to go all the way to...the UK, and to the year 2000 film Chicken Run, which came to us from Aardman Studios.
Quick history lesson: Aardman Animations, aka Aardman Studios, has come to be recognized as a British institution. Best known for the trademark stop-motion animation style featuring characters made of Plasticine. Formed in 1972 by Peter Lord and David Sproxton, where they worked mostly in British television. But it wasn't until the 1990s when they started gaining worldwide acclaim, thanks to the their superstar animator Nick Park and his Oscar-winning short films, Creature Comforts and the Wallace and Gromit series. Meanwhile, over in the USA, the head of Disney's animation department was the legendary Hollywood producer Jeffrey Katzenburg. Katzenburg has just made deals with Pixar and the Japanese studio Studio Ghibli to start distributing their films to the world. Katzenburg also wanted to get Aardman into the Disney fold for the hat trick. But the president of Disney at the time, Michael Eisner, would have none of it. He was really wary of Disney getting into the business of distributing other studio's animated films. So, as the 1990s wore on, Katezenburg eventually left Disney to be one of the founders of DreamWorks SKG. Heading up DreamWork's fledgling animation department, the first thing he did was sign Aardman to a worldwide distribution deal. And the first film under that deal, Chicken Run, co-directed by Lord and Park.
I remember when this movie hit theatres in the summer of Y2K. It won much critical love. It won so much critical love, that urban legend says the Oscars created the Best Animated Film category because of it. They wanted to create the category because they felt guilty that they couldn't give it any awards. I remember PETA even gave the film it's thumbs up, saying that depicting a chicken farm as a World War II-style prison camp was brilliant and accurate. "We predict this film will do for chicken what Babe did for pork," I remember one PETA spokesperson saying in the press at the time. (No word on what PETA's reaction was to Burger King's tie-in, the slogan of which essentially boiled down to, "Save the chickens! Eat beef instead.")
As previously mentioned, the film takes place on a chicken farm in rural England, and the whole place is designed to resemble, and is run like, a World War II prison camp. The leader of our POWs/hens is Ginger, who is constantly trying to escape and get all the other chickens out with her. She just knows there has to be a better life than living under the cruel rubber boot of the farm's commandant, Mrs. Tweedy. The stakes are established pretty early in the film, when one of the hens, Edwina, hasn't been able to lay any eggs for the past few days, so Mrs. and Mr. Tweedy promptly take her to the chopping block and serve her up for supper.
This steels Ginger's resolve, so that night, they have another meeting to plan their latest escape attempt. And in this meeting, we get to meet the other colourful characters that fill this chicken coop:
- Babs, the scatterbrain, who's constantly knitting
- Mac, the Scottish engineer, who's usually charged with building the equipment needed for the escape attempts. (On the running commentary, they admit they wanted to name her "Mac Nugget," but ran into trouble with McDonald's.)
- Bunty, the brassy broad who always poking holes in Ginger's plan
- and Fowler, the old rooster who's constantly talking about his RAF days.
Meanwhile, with Mrs. Tweedy, she's growing very frustrated. The farm isn't paying off like it used to, so she thinks it's time to switch focus. They're going to switch from being an egg farm, to making chicken pot pies, which of course, will spell doom for all the chickens.
So, Rocky starts leading the hens through a series of training exercises, but they seem to do nothing but frustrate Ginger. Oh, if only Rocky could fly, but he can't, because he conveniently broke his wing in the crash. So Rocky and Ginger start bickering in the way that means they're actually kinda into each other. One day, Mrs. Tweedy decides to increase their food rations. While most of the hens like this, Ginger has the smarts to figure out that they're being fattened up for a dire fate. Needless to say, this a real bummer, so Rocky arranges a dance to lighten the mood, and during the dance, it's revealed his wing is healed. But before he can get on with a demonstration, Mr. Tweedy -- who is convinced that the chickens are organized and Ginger is the leader -- selects Ginger to be the guinea pig for the chicken pot pie machine.
In a great action sequence, Rocky goes to rescue Ginger from the machine, and on the running commentary, the directors admit that this entire sequence is meant to be an homage to the Indiana Jones films, and all the deathtraps Indy would encounter in those temples. They say there's one scene they storyboarded, but never animated, Ginger and Rocky were to run into a chicken skeleton, because Indy always ran into a skeleton in a sprung trap. And Rocky was going to remark, "They bought a used machine. How cheap are they?" Anyway, the escape from the machine, destroying it and learning Mrs. Tweedy's plot in the process. But it's OK, because salvation is at hand! Rocky is healed and now he can finally teach them how to fly!
But, in a show of cowardice, Rocky runs away. We learn the truth: Rocky can't really fly...his circus act involves him being shot out of a canon. Now, I kind of like this. In the animated film formula that's been stuck to since Aladdin, we the audience are always privy to the hero's deception. But in this one, the audience is not. So when the truth comes out, we the audience feel betrayed along with the heroine. It's such a small twist to the formula that makes it a bit better.
Needless to say, all hope is lost. The hens start brawling. And in the madness, hearing one of Fowler's tales about the RAF, Ginger finally asks "What is the RAF?" And Fowler responds: the Royal Air Force. Fowler starts showing off some of his old RAF souvenirs, and Ginger comes up with a new plan. They're still going to get out of the farm by flying. But now, they're going to do it by building an airplane. Ginger rallies all the chickens and their special talents to get it done.
It's a race between the chickens and the Tweedys to see who'll build their machines first. They finish within minutes of each other, and the chickens know it's now or never for their escape. And I will admit, when I first saw this in the theatres, when the coop flips over and transforms into their plane, I got goosebumps. It's such a brilliant scene. And it ends with one of my favourite gags. Ginger tells Fowler to get into the pilot's seat, to which Folwer says, "Are you mad? I was the mascot. I'm a chicken! They don't let chickens fly planes!" Facepalm and chuckles from everyone in the audience. But Ginger gives the inspirational speech and Fowler takes the controls.
The Tweedys do their best to stop the flight, but with a timely return by Rocky (the hero always returns), the plane takes off, we get the requisite Star Trek jokes from the Scottish engineer as she starts running through all the trademark Scotty lines, Ginger and Mrs. Tweedy have their final battle dangling from the back of the plane. But evil is defeated, the plane flies off into the sunset, and the chickens live happily ever after in a bird sanctuary.
I remember watching the Nostalgia Chick not too long ago where she was talking about the evolution of DreamWorks animation. A lot of their early films (like Shrek) were caught up in this whole, "FUCK YOU, DISNEY!" mentality. They were trying very hard to be the anti-Disney. But now, here we are, about 15 years later, and with that out of their system, DreamWorks have turned into loving homage films. Kung Fu Panda was the loving homage to kung fu movies, MegaMind was the loving homage to superheroes, and How to Train Your Dragon was the loving homage to fantasy. So it's kind of weird watching Chicken Run, because right in the middle of their "FUCK YOU, DISNEY!" phase, DreamWorks has their name attached to the kind of movie that their studios would evolve to produces. All of Chicken Run is a loving homage to World War II films.
Yeah, the jokes are still pop culture references, but their the best kinds. They're subtle, without beating you over the head. They're more like Easter eggs. It's a great voice cast, too, as it's filled with British character actors. And Mel Gibson does a great job voicing Rocky, back in his pre-crazy days.
And the music! OH MY GOD, THE MUSIC! Still one of the best scores ever produced for an animated film, in my opinion.
And such memorable characters, too. I almost forgot the comic relief, a couple of rats named Nick and Fetcher, filling the roles of those prisoners who can scrounge whatever contraband you need. Another favourite gag, during the stress-relieving dance that Rocky has set up, Nick and Fetcher are watching from the rafters. Fetcher is crying.
Fetcher>> It's just...these are the moments that make the job worthwhile. (Looks to Nick) Do you wanna dance?
(Nick gives Fetcher a classic "Are you out to lunch?" kind of look, before shrugging and saying)
Nick>> Yeah. Why not?
Everything about this movie is just amazing. As I said, still, truly, one of the funniest animated films ever made.