Chicken Run is one of those kids movies that doesn’t mind startling, or maybe scarring, its target demographic. The film has a dark realism to its portrayal of slaughterhouse chickens plotting an escape from a factory farm. Consider an early scene when the evil chicken farmer Mrs. Tweedy (voiced by Miranda Richardson) condemns a chicken who hasn’t been laying its daily egg to the chopping block. The whole setup seems ripe for a close-call scenario that sees the chicken spared at the last second. Instead, the chicken’s head is chopped off, and the surviving chickens hear the sudden thud of the ax.
The directing team of Peter Lord and Nick Park (working off a screenplay by Karey Kirkpatrick) aren’t afraid to bring the mood nor color palette of Chicken Run down in order to show the horrors that these chickens experience on the farm. As colorful as this claymation classic frequently is, there is a true element of suspense present at all times. No chicken feels completely safe, especially when so soon into the film one loses its head.
Chicken Run is centered on a group of chickens, led by a plucky hen named Ginger (Julia Sawalha), who are trapped on the Tweedy Chicken Farm. The chickens are confined to a life of egg laying so Mr. Tweedy (Tony Haygarth) and his wife can fill their fridge and sell the rest. Most of the chickens are content with this life, but it’s Ginger who informs them that they could be living a life of freedom with no farmers, fences, nor feed times. Ginger has tried to escape numerous times, but the paranoid Mr. Tweedy, always convinced the chickens are secretly organizing behind his back, makes a habit of catching her and banishing her to the coal hole for a week’s time.
As Ginger and the chickens get serious about plotting an escape, Rocky the Flying Rooster (Mel Gibson) crash-lands on the farm after escaping his life as a circus performer. Rocky promises to free the hens by teaching them to fly over the fence. Whether or not Rocky is completely trustworthy is for the chickens to find out.
Phil Daniels and Timothy Spall voice a pair of rodents who serve as the Statler and Waldorf of the story, mocking and ridiculing the chickens as they attempt to fly to their escape. Another voice of wisdom comes from an elderly rooster who shares of his days in World War II, while a hen with a Scottish accent finally gets to put his engineering knowledge to the test once the chickens get to work.
Kirkpatrick knows that the escape plot is merely a vehicle to keep the film moving, and wisely dedicates much of the film to the engaging personalities of the chickens. That doesn’t mean Chicken Run lacks in the thrills department, however. One of the film’s best sequences involves Ginger and Rocky getting mixed up in the mechanisms of a chicken pot pie machine, using only their quick wits to escape a doom that involves them being flattened, mashed, and gravy-ed.
I didn’t grow up with Chicken Run like many of my peers, but I’ve always admired the dedication to stop-motion and claymation craft the folks at Aardman Animation have long prioritized. Chicken Run was in production for six months, with merely 60 seconds of film being completed at the end of each week. 30 sets were used with 80 animators working along with 180 people working overall. If that doesn’t sound arduous enough, a different beak needed to be utilized for each chicken when they were speaking. The craftsmanship in both narrative and visual appeal shows as Chicken Run looks as marvelous as anything released today, with thoughtful subtext to go along with it.
NOTE: As of this writing, Chicken Run is available to stream on Netflix.
Voiced by: Julia Sawalha, Phil Daniels, Lynn Ferguson, Mel Gibson, Tony Haygarth, Jane Horrocks, Miranda Richardson, Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton, and Benjamin Whitrow. Directed by: Peter Lord and Nick Park.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!