A Film by Nick Park and Peter Lord
Written by Karey Kirkpatick
The new film from co-director/producers Nick Park and Peter Lord of Academy Award-winning Aardman entertainment (the "Wallace and Grommit" shorts The Wrong Trousers, A Close Shave and A Grand Day Out) is an animated fantasy-adventure that is delightfully successful on many levels. With a sophisticated, modern evocation of the whimsy of early Disney "barnyard" cartoons, thoughtful and effective writing, and winning vocal performances, the finished product is a film that delivers thrills, wit, slapstick humor and emotional authenticity that can be appreciated by anyone over the age of three or four.
The story is a retelling of the indomitable prisoner scenario from such films as Stalag 17, The Great Escape, The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Wooden Horse - with the difference that in this case our heros are - Chickens! The need to fight oppression and to determine the course of one's own life is the basic motivating factor, and the trials and risks the characters experience in the course of trying to escape provide the dramatic tension.
At the center of the struggle is the tenacious and courageous Ginger (it is worth noting that all but three of the major characters - including the chief protagonist - are female), whose indefatigable determination to liberate not only herself, but also her fellow prisoners forms the basis of a humorous prologue. Her cast of sidekicks, the techie-geek Mac, the muscular Bunty and the clueless Babs, are written and voiced with distinct personalities that add a layer of interest to the story.
After exhausting strategy after strategy for escape to no avail, Ginger's prayers seem to have been (literally) answered when a stranger, identified on a torn circus poster as "Rocky, the Flying Rooster" comes (literally) hurtling into the chickenyard. In exchange for refuge from the circus owners who are hunting him, Rocky promises to help with Ginger's newest escape attempt, by teaching the chickens to fly.
Despite the animation format, the emotional struggles the various characters experience come across as genuine and affecting. Interestingly, the application of an animated adaptation to a well-worn plot-line time breathes a new life into it. Perhaps because the "personalities" have to be identified by their archetypal characteristics - their emotional charge - rather than their human "type," the feelings they evoke have a more powerful presence than they might as mere "human" stereotypes.
In spite of direct and intentional references to the films mentioned above the film rises above pastiche or parody, to explore the longing for freedom, the strength of community, the trials and rewards of maintaining one's own integrity. The ultimate outcome of the film and the humor that leavens it throughout seem like more than manipulative, "feel-good" devices. In the hands of the Aardman crew, they seem expressions of a genuine compassion for and optimism about the human condition.
One plot-line of the film is about the oppressive regimentation and increasing industrialization of the chicken farm. In the pursuit of profit, the greedy Mrs. Tweedy is going to turn her egg farm - already organized on a ruthless, produce-or-perish basis - into a self-consuming chicken-pot-pie factory. There is an obvious parallel with Aardman's position in the film industry, using the labor intensive, old-fashion techniques of "claymation" animation in the era where less interesting but much trendier and often cheaper digital animation technology promises large profits. Whether life is to be lived (and risked) doing what one believes in and loves - preferably in paradise - or merely survived, is the question that lies at the emotional heart of the film.
Another theme is self-reliance. When Ginger is abandoned by her champion, Rocky, she still refuses to give up. She comes up with and executes yet another plan, one that finally leads to freedom for all. This extraordinary dedication and competence - especially on the part of a female character - is rare in films of the last decade or so. Although Rocky returns in time to help, it is Ginger conceives and supervises the plan, and who risks her life at the last to rescue the group from the final and most dangerous threat.
The balance of humor and serious exploration of emotional and psychological themes is maintained with great skill. The writer, Karey Kirkpatrick, whose previous unremarkable credits include Disney's The Rescuers Down Under, James and the Giant Peach, and the live action comedy Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves, reaches well beyond those efforts here, with a literate, witty script worthy of a Jay Ward (Of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame) or a Walt (Pogo) Kelly. The combination of direct, easily accessible humor with sophisticated references and subtle sub-texts helps make this film one which parents will enjoy as much as - perhaps even more than - children.
The technical look of the film is one of the things for which Aardman is most noted. Their use of three dimensional props and figures - almost all custom made - gives the film a look of an "alternative reality" that no cell or computer animation - so far - can hope to match. With as many as twenty-four separate shots for each second of film-time, an output of ten seconds a day was considered good.
The technical expertise, concentration and painstaking attention to detail this requires, as well as the hours of labor, has made it seem prohibitively expensive to most producers. But the Aardman principles, Founders and co-producers David Sproxton and Lord and co-producer Park, were willing to take a chance on what they believed in.
Their multi-million dollar effort here, which was much less expensive to make than the Disney 200 million dollar computer-generated animation Dinosaur, seems likely, from early reports, to do better than that technically sophisticated but uninteresting film. This is partly due to the intelligent script, but also partly due to the technique, which gives a feeling of presence to the characters and scenery.
There is level of involvement in production that is not even found on most live-action sets. The principle workers were involved in production five or more days a week for more than a year (a 100 day shooting schedule is considered long for a studio feature film - 30-60 days is average).
Barbs for the barbed-wire on the chicken farm set were hand twisted by the model makers. The knitting that Babs endlessly works at was actually created by the model-makers, using toothpicks and string. The dress custom-made to fit the Mrs Tweedy character was stitched by hand out of a specially created fabric featuring a pattern of chicken foot-prints.
To put this much time and effort into a film makes it a labor of love. To create the kind of details most audience members won't even notice, but that add to the film-makers' appreciation for and enjoyment of what they are doing could be self indulgence, but in this case is seems to have fueled an attention to making this imaginary world come to life. The result is a remarkably detailed fantasy that draws the viewer in.
The actors who provide character voices for the film also contribute to its success. Julia Sawalha, who plays Ginger, is particularly effective in conveying the wide range of emotions her character experiences. Her clear, strong voice seems appropriate to this plucky (pardon the pun) heroine. She is best known to American audiences as Saffron on the BBC Brit-com Absolutely Fabulous. That may be where she picked up some of the excellent comic timing she demonstrates here.
Mel Gibson is something of a surprise as the voice of Rocky. Without grandstanding, he gives a delightfully understated and accurately tuned performance. His smooth-talking, con-man of a Yank is a fine foil for Sawalha's doughty but vulnerable Ginger. There's a slightly unctuous charm mixed with an underlying sincerity in his voice that is reminiscent of Bing Crosby in some of his similar comic turns.
Jane Horrocks, giving voice to the naive and slightly-addled Babs, invests her with a sweetness and amiability that makes her character one of those the audience wants to protect. She is another Ab-Fab alumna, who played Bubble on the show. As the heartless Mrs Tweedy - a sort of Olive Oyl gone wrong, Miranda Richardson's voice drips with venom and quivers with barely suppressed malevolence.
Lynn Ferguson, as the brainy Mac has some wonderful fun with Scots dialect and with a classic Star Trek line she gets to utter about three-quarters of the way through the film. Benjamin Whitrow, as Fowler, the farm's ancient rooster, has a wonderful time doing a send-up of the stock English caricature of Colonel Blimp - the retired military bore who drones on endlessly and incomprehensibly about his old days in the service. He has several scenes that would simply steal the film if they weren't part of such a well-balanced ensemble effort.
The whole film is like that: well-balanced. The complicated animators' craft is so flawlessly executed that it seems effortless. The script is well-written enough that is can be self-referential without being self-conscious or self-indulgent. The music subtly blends the war-time period of the "escape" films with the world of the film. The vocal performances and visual images complement one another harmoniously.
The success of previous Aardman short productions had set a high standard for their first feature film. They have more than lived up to that standard. They have created an instant classic of animated film. Working with a much larger cast, a more complicated and longer script, this film suggests that they may be the coming power in the genre, producing a film that has the production values of Hollywood's best, and the story values of Independent integrity. With a distribution deal with Dreamworks (former Disney head Jeffery Katzenberg's partnership with Steven Speilberg and David Geffen), mainstream success seems assured for this accomplished film.
That's my take on it. What's yours?