Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Chicken Run" (2000)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

Ginger (voice of Julia Sawalha) dreams of escape. While all of the other chickens at Tweedy's farm have accepted their lot in life - lay eggs daily or else face execution - Ginger refuses to live such a soulless existence. However, every plan for escape falls short, until a strapping American rooster named Rocky (voice of Mel Gibson) literally falls out of the sky into the coops. Rocky is billed as the "amazing flying rooster," and Ginger and the others immediately see him as their savior, especially since Mrs. Tweedy (voice of Miranda Richardson) has invested in a pie-making machine that will specialize in chicken pies. With death looming over them, Ginger relies on Rocky for their salvation, even though she doesn't initially like his cocky attitude. But Rocky's secret - he can't actually fly - may ruin them all. Will they escape in time to avoid certain death?



Chicken Run represents an interesting moment in time for animation. For one thing, it's the last time Gibson was considered a viable option for a family film (and as a leading man in general; What Women Want premiered the same year to major commercial success) before going way off the deep end. It also represents the first feature-length film from British animation outfit Aardman, which before then had specialized in the famed "Wallace & Gromit" and "Creature Comforts" shorts. Those shorts had earned the company great critical acclaim, with director Nick Park winning three Animated Short Oscars for entries in both series (and picking up a fourth nomination for W&G short "A Grand Day Out"). Their specialization in stop-motion animation with clay figurines, known as "Claymation," distinguished them on the animation landscape. At a time when Pixar was revolutionizing computer-animation (and other studios were buying in) and hand-drawn animation was on the decline, Aardman was offering an interesting alternative that was unique and imaginative while also lending a "handmade" quality to their works. Its position between Pixar's Toy Story 2 (1999) and Dreamworks' Shrek (2001), as well as hand-drawn efforts like Disney's Tarzan (1999) and Dreamworks' Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002), places it at a crux in the evolution of big-studio animation.

That's not a bad accomplishment from a film that essentially blends the Pixar (emotionally fraught, often dark narratives) and Dreamworks (pop-culture references and madcap silliness) house styles before they even existed, with an added dash of dry British humor. 

More after the jump.

The film is a riff on break-out films, with the chicken yard closely resembling a prisoner-of-war camp from World War II. The prisoners, as they are, labor away during the day, only to furtively plan their (botched) escapes by night. Every morning, Mrs. Tweedy conducts a role call, which undoubtedly takes on the appearance of a military lineup.



And the film doesn't mince the stakes either. It's surprisingly obvious that death is the punishment for not producing eggs; the allusion is only thinly veiled when one chicken is taken into the shed, the visuals below followed by the dull thud of the axe hitting the woodblock.




What's most surprising about Chicken Run is how it flips the conventions of the genre it's paying loving tribute to. Though its almost certainly not the main intention of the film, there's a strong feminist bent to the film's first two acts. With the exceptions of rooster Fowler (who boasts of his connections to the RAF, strengthening those ties to the genre) and later Rocky, all of the chickens are female, and their only purpose is to reproduce. This unexpected angle gives the film more depth, and at least for a while it transforms into a kid-friendly allegory for femininity in a patriarchal society, with Mrs. Tweedy taking on the role of oppressor (despite her name, she is not granted any feminine attributes in terms of costume or demeanor).


It's Rocky, however, that proves to be the complicating factor to the film's feminist leanings. Rocky is all swagger, a con man that can easily coast on his looks and ability to bullshit everyone he meets. And its obvious that, from the moment he arrives, he's meant to be a romantic interest for Ginger, even though he is everything she can't stand. Perhaps it is partly because of Gibson's deeply misogynistic and anti-Semitic comments in later years, but it's difficult to view Rocky as a wholly sympathetic character when Gibson's providing the voice. It's a cocksure attitude that tips into outright arrogance, and with the film's third act treating Rocky as a romantic hero and an actual savior figure, it doesn't entirely hold up and proves to be problematic.

All of that being said, this is "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," and the film is a visual feast. The animation is fluid, and the use of framing and color is especially enticing. Just take a look at these two shots of Ginger sitting on the roof of a coop, staring out into the distance:




In the first shot, Ginger's suffered another setback in her escape plans, and she's looking out over the coops and into the world beyond the fence. The warm colors and soft light, combined with a framing that makes the sky seem expansive, give the shot a sense of hope as Ginger dreams of freedom. The second shot, on the other hand, has a completely different feeling. Ginger is in the same situation, but instead of looking out, she's looking down with the camera behind her. The colors are darker and the light dimmer, with the once-wide-open sky now having shrunk and filled with dark clouds, and the camera has rotated to place the background behind Ginger. There's a great mastery of visual grammar at work here, and directors Park and Peter Lord show a strong hand in their feature debuts.

And, most notably, the visuals communicate many of the film's notable themes and motifs. Take this shot for example:

*Best Shot*

Death hangs over the entire film, even as it plays fast and loose with the comedy. In the above shot, Rocky and Ginger are attempting to escape the pot pie machine, and Rocky continuously falls over into the baking pies. In motion, it's an amusing riff on the old rake joke, but when frozen frame-by-frame it looks like something from a horror movie. The red glow of the oven combined with the way the pie filling looks like blood splattering out of Rocky's chicken-shaped indents makes this shot look like a photograph of a massacre rather than the slapstick that it actually is. This is the secret success of Chicken Run: sneaking in some surprisingly dark and complex material into a genial family movie.

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