At a time when summer pictures usually run to high-octane live-
action blockbusters and equally raucous family fare, it’s
refreshing to encounter a more gentle, quirky bit of business
like this initial feature from Aardman, the English animation
house best known for Nick Parks’ delightful “Wallace and
Gromit” shorts. While other practitioners of the craft aim
at greater and greater realism, Aardman–especially in the
clay animation technique on display here–revels in the sheer
artifice of the process, creating characters with wonderfully
exaggerated features, set against backgrounds that are almost
startlingly stylized. And while other animators pace their
efforts with the same manic intensity that live-action
filmmakers seem more and more addicted to, the Aardman folk
are content to move at a more leisurely pace that isn’t so
immediately flashy, but makes for a warmer, sweeter overall
feel (not, however, without a healthy hint of the darker side
that one remembers, for instance, in “The Wizard of Oz”).

“Chicken Run” can be described as a barnyard version of “The
Great Escape,” with the poultry cooped up on a Yorkshire farm
striving to escape their lives of incarceration and servitude.
The hens are led in their drive for freedom by energetic
Ginger (Julia Sawalha), a peppy type who, in the picture’s
early stages, comes up with a succession of plans to break out
(their failure regularly lands her in solitary confinement in
the coal bin). The arrival of an American visitor–a smug,
vain Rock Island Red appropriately called Rocky (Mel Gibson),
who claims the ability to fly, convinces Ginger that the way to
succeed lies in his teaching her and her fellow fowl to flee
by air–a project which becomes more urgent when the ruthless
owner of the farm, Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson), determines
to increase profits by turning the venture from one based on
egg production to one specializing in the making of chicken pot
pies. The denouement involves a crisis over Rocky’s abilities
and a final team effort to save the day.

Such a storyline would not have been out of place in a Warner
Brothers short of the forties, but what sets “Chicken Run”
apart is its veddy, veddy British sense of mood and
characterization; the picture resonates with the same love of
eccentricity and oddness that marks Parks’ “Wallace and Gromit”
shorts. All the hens speak with English accents, of course, but
more importantly each of them exhibits a trait–fluttery
brainlessness (Jane Horrocks’ Babs) or nerdy intensity (Lynn
Ferguson’s Mac), for example–which seems to come from the
Ealing tradition of comedy; and the local rooster Fowler
(voiced by Benjamin Whitrow), with his stuffy military bearing,
owes much to innumerable figures of service background found
in both Agatha Christie mysteries and live-action film (just
think, for instance, of the ramrod-straight persona that David
Niven adopted in “Separate Tables”). The human characters are
also staples of British fun; Mrs. Tweedy is like a mad
headmistress, and her befuddled husband (Tony Haygargh) the
embodiment of dimwitted obsessiveness. There are even two
pack-rats, not unlike the petty thieves found in Dickens or
Conan Doyle (voiced by Timothy Spall and Phil Daniels), who not
only aid the poultry in acquiring materials for their escape
plans, but comment wryly on the proceedings in the fashion of
the Muppets’ Statler and Waldorf (their refusal to be paid,
quite literally, in chicken feed is priceless). The sole
exception to the prevailing Englishness is Gibson’s Rocky, but
happily the plot doesn’t focus overmuch on him, since his
preening arrogance grows a trifle tiresome after awhile; one
supposes that it was felt prudent to insert such a figure into
the plot for the sake of attracting a larger stateside audience,
but the script could easily have done without him.

It’s the quirkily British sense of tone and character, as well
as the almost quaint (though beautifully achieved) pictorial
style, that set “Chicken Run” apart from most recent American
animated features, with their smooth but often overly slick
visual perfection; the only comparable U.S. efforts in the
past few years have been the “Toy Story” flicks, Tim Burton’s
still-spectacular “Nightmare Before Christmas,” and DreamWorks’
own “Antz,” all of which used innovative techniques instead of
the traditional cell animation to create a very different
cinematic worlds. This Aardman venture is a worthy addition
to that group, even if its humor is distinctive among them:
you could say that while the earlier films–especially the
“Toy Story” pictures, since the other two reflected the quite
peculiar perspectives of Burton and Woody Allen–reflected the
influence of U.S. television situation comedy, “Chicken Run”
owes more to the English comic tradition kept alive in the
series one can catch regularly on PBS channels in this country.
For some that won’t be an endorsement, but many will appreciate
the genial, good-natured goofiness of the result, as well
as the dark, tangy moments that periodically invade it.