Chicken Run
by Karl Bowman and Jonathan Walker

Organizing a farm full of chickens is not an easy task, but getting them together can accomplish great things. In Nick Park’s feature debut (see his wonderful shorts about Wallace and Gromit), he delivers a wonderful movie in Chicken Run.

Tweedy’s egg farm is much like a WWII concentration camp. The environment is harsh and the mood hopeless. If a chicken does not produce enough eggs, she becomes dinner. The mean Mrs. Tweedy (voiced by Miranda Richardson) and the dolt Mr. Tweedy (voiced by Tony Haygarth) keep their chickens under tight control, but Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha), the chickens’ ringleader, will not give up her quest for freedom. Attempt after attempt simply lands her in solitary confinement. Then Rocky Rhodes (voiced by Mel Gibson) literally flies over the barbed wire fence which offers Ginger and the others the hope that they, too, can be taught to fly. Things get a good deal more serious when Mrs. Tweedy greedily seeks for bigger profits and wants to produce chicken pies.

Certainly, many view animation simply as one of the last bastions of wholesome film, but critics increasingly acknowledge its artistic merits. And, at the hands of masters like Park and Peter Lord, it can be impressive as well as entertaining. The wry humor, the masterful animation, the creativity of the sound, and the design which lacks the glossy sexuality that’s common in our popular culture raises Chicken Run above the entertainment fray. Park and Lord even refrain from resorting to the tired animation conventions of inserting unnecessary songs for the sake of marketing.

Park and Lord delightfully borrow ideas and conventions from earlier films which make it as enjoyable for adults as for children. Unlike lesser films however, these allusions do not degrade the film into parody. Whether you understand the allusions or not, the film holds up over multiple viewings because it stands on its own.

Run‘s theme may seem obvious. As a “prisoner camp break-out” movie, the theme could easily be about freedom, but we could also pick from a long list of possible-and probable-themes: being true to yourself (Rocky Rhodes is not true to himself and jeopardizes his relationship with Ginger); achieving your potential (chickens can fly, if they think out of the box); working as a team (everyone must pitch in to get the plane off the ground, even the rats have a role to play); paradise is being free, greed will destroy you (Mrs. Tweedy); or, never giving up hope (Ginger’s persistence in the face of impossible odds.)

All of these possibilities actually fit into a larger theme. But we have become so accustomed to anthropomorphic animals–whether it be a clever rabbit, a happy-go-lucky mouse, or imaginative aardvark–that we may overlook the humor and theme of Chicken Run‘s premise. Seeing a flock of chickens feed offers little hope of organizing them, but it is only through coming together that they may free themselves from Mrs. Tweedy’s malevolent plans. Freedom for these chickens may only be gained when they work together, care for each other, and organize themselves.

Looking out for each other starts long before they majestically fly over the fence. Mrs. Tweedy makes a family meal out of the chicken who hasn’t laid any eggs in the preceding week. Aware of this, the chickens look out for each other by sharing eggs, but when one falls through the cracks, they all question why they didn’t know she needed help. Organization, and a plan, are needed.

Plan after plan fails. They pin their hopes on Rocky’s ability to teach them to fly. The hopes are dashed when he abandons them. At that dark moment, Ginger comes up with her most ambitious plan yet. A plan of such magnitude that it will require everyone’s devotion. The rats will eventually sacrifice their coveted eggs. Fowler will have to rise to the challenge. Rocky will risk his freedom and Ginger will risk her life.

Nick Park’s comment that “Chickens are people, too,” because we see our own humanity in them. It may be more appropriate, in this case, to say, “People are chickens, too.” We peck around in our existence and resist being gathered together. We choose to be “individuals” and reject being a cog in a machine. We like to be the free ranging rooster. Our strengths as human beings surface when we can put away these selfish ambitions and work together. Our greatest accomplishments are collaborative. Maybe Mr. Tweedy said it best, “Them chickens are organized.”

Ginger identifies the obstacle that we face; the problem is in our heads. Most of us do not live original lives, though we like to think we do. We tend to kick against the pricks instead of falling in line behind a bigger cause. “It’s not that hard to get one out–or maybe two. But, it’s about all of us.” When a coop full of chickens learn to work together, even they can fly.

 


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