"Please, let's not lose our heads," the calm and collected Ginger says toward the end of Chicken Run, Nick Park and Peter Lord's homage to escape films using barnyard hens as the prisoners. Of course, their heads are exactly what Ginger and her feathered friends stand to lose if they can't either lay more eggs or fly the coop. Mrs. Tweedy, the proprietress of Tweedy's Egg Farm, just acquired a machine that turns chickens into chicken pies, and she's dying to use it--murder most fowl. Ingeniously entertaining, Chicken Run uses the stop-motion techniques that Park perfected in his Oscar-winning shorts: A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave. And though Wallace and Gromit have the day off this time, chickens--veddy British chickens who would prefer to be having tea in front of the fireplace rather than hatching escape plans--turn out to be a fine substitute. Park and Lord have a field day animating their plump, Plasticene bodies. And the movie's set pieces, including one that does a riff on the opening of 1965's Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, are a joy to behold. The very opposite of computer-generated imagery, stop-motion animation is a meticulous, hand-crafted art that can turn out, at most, a few seconds of film a day; and you can feel Park and Lord's obsessive attention to detail in Chicken Run's jam-packed frame. (Look for jokes around the edges.) But the film itself is as fluid as can be--poultry in motion, to steal a phrase from the press packet. And it has the lighting and editing effects of a first-rate live-action film. (As he's shown with Wallace and Gromit, Park has an unbelievable sense of timing, a kind of understated zaniness that seems peculiarly British.) On the few occasions when the story lagged, I just sat back and took in the sheer marvel of bringing lumpy pieces of plastic to comic life. Crossing that line from inorganic to organic gives all stop-motion films a whiff of surreality; in fact, that's what draws directors to the medium. (Remember Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas?) And though Park's work can leave one as giggly as a schoolgirl, there's a darkness there, a shadowy unease. With the barracks, the barbed wire and the maliciously barking dogs, Tweedy's Farm is unmistakably a concentration camp, and when the oven ignites on the chicken-to-chicken-pie converter, even adults may gasp. Overall, the movie may be more appropriate for adults than kids. At the screening I attended, we seemed to do all the laughing.
Perhaps it's too inside for kids as well. And too--what's the right word?--tweedy. Then again, no one's tweedier than Wallace, and kids seem to like him. I'm assuming it was Dreamworks who convinced Park and Lord to bring in Mel Gibson as the voice of Rocky, a cock-of-the-walk rooster who's supposed to show the chickens how to fly. I for one preferred Nick and Phil, a pair of English music-hall comedians who happen to be rats. More seedy than tweedy, they're the cat's meow.