A prisoner-of-war film starring poultry, Aardman’s feature-length Chicken Run repackages in summer-movie form the British claymation studio’s trademark combination of elaborate slapstick, gentle absurdism, and the character-driven comedy of an anthropomorphic menagerie. “There’s a constant joke going on in the film, which allows us to get away with shamelessly quoting from movies like The Great Escape and Stalag 17,” says codirector Nick Park. “You’re constantly reminded that it’s chickens. You’re being entertained by chickens.”
Park’s codirector, Aardman cofounder Peter Lord, says the incongruity of the premise was irresistible. “Chickens have such a reputation for cowardliness that we thought it’d be fun to make them real heroes. And The Great Escape with cows wouldn’t have worked.” Park, a three-time Oscar winner for his Wallace and Gromit shorts, adds: “Chickens have always been cast as extras, flapping out of the way as a car shoots through a village. They’re always treated as dumb animals. I think we’ve done our bit. We’ve fought the cause of chickendom.” “And made them sexy,” says Lord. “Chickens haven’t been sexy before.” (For the record, neither director is a vegetarian. “We were before,” Park deadpans.)
Nearly five years in the making, Chicken Run was, true to form, a hugely labor-intensive undertaking—not just the snail-paced 20-month shoot but the research that preceded it. “We visited a chicken farm with a video camera and put it low down to see what it was like from the point of view of the chickens,” Park says. “We looked at films of chickens and the animators pretended to be chickens in acting workshops, but fairly early on, we pretty much left chickens as we know them behind.” Lord adds: “We studied the life cycle, chicken husbandry, egg laying, chicken psychology—and then we threw it all out the window because it was completely irrelevant.”
Like last year’s Iron Giant (made by Warner’s animation division), Chicken Run positions itself as an alternative to the Disney model of feature animation—a fact obviously recognized by DreamWorks, with which Aardman has a five-picture deal. “When we went to see DreamWorks, the first item on the agenda was: no songs,” says Lord. “That was five years ago and animated musicals were the norm. I don’t particularly like musicals—why would I want to do an animated one? Kids don’t like those soppy songs, do they? What person under 40 wants to hear them?” (The next Aardman feature will be a version of The Tortoise and the Hare, directed by Richard Goleszowski, best known for Rex the Runt; following that, Park will helm a Wallace and Gromit movie.)
Chicken Run‘s designated centerpiece, an Indiana Jones homage featuring a chicken-pie machine, is as exciting and ornately designed as any action sequence you’ll see all summer. Park admits that his fascination with wheezy, malfunction-prone contraptions is, in part, nostalgic. “It harks back to the days when machines had character. When I look around today, I always think, there’s no drama, no character. I go to buy a telephone and they’re boring as hell—square, black, tiny as possible. I want something big and chunky I can get hold of.”
Not that the Aardman films are free of digital manipulation. “We use computers for effects that you can’t do with plasticine—fire and water and smoke and gravy explosions,” says Lord. The ascent of CGI, Park says, is less of a threat than it might seem. “The more computers advance, the more people seem to love what we do. There’s something that happens in clay animation that computers won’t get for quite a while, maybe never. There’s something intrinsically spontaneous about working on a performance in front of the camera. It’s not a thought process when you’re nudging the plasticine and tweaking it. It doesn’t depend on technicalities. Clay animation’s closer to live action than traditional animation. There’s a sense of being on location. You arrive on set, and all kinds of things happen that you couldn’t have imagined—the way the light bounces and captures a texture.
“I think there’s an Islamic saying about every carpet having an imperfection left in it, and, um, I don’t know what the point is . . . but there’s something important about leaving things imperfect.” Lord adds: “People unfortunately find it hard to believe that the animation is almost like live performance in the simple sense that you can’t go back and change what just happened. Every part of the performance follows and is dependent on every other part. With most forms of animation, you can constantly refer back and refine and change. There’s more perfection but less life.”