You don’t need to have seen The Great Escape or Stalag 17 to infer that Chicken Run is a riff on WWII prison camp movies. The movie starts with an almost dialogue-free eight-minute scene that sets the plot and tone of the film in motion. It’s the dead of night and chickens are quietly trying to escape from their prison coops. Through clever staging and editing, the comedic punches land as do the tense moments where the hens run back home after they’re almost eaten. Ask the three-year-old I saw it with. He was at the edge of his seat from beginning to end –laughing at the zany slapstick humor, oblivious to the wordplay and tense during the threats of violence.
After the opening scene, we learn what’s at stake. Any hen who has a dry spell in laying eggs ends up murdered by the farmers (an oafish husband and his dastardly wife). Ginger, the main character, has a great sense of urgency to leave while the others seem to not want to understand the gravity of their situation. The rest of the chickens have a sense of learned helplessness about their lives. They don’t believe in something outside of the farm –outside their dismal fate. Ginger has a spark to her and tries to wake it inside her friends. Twenty minutes into the ninety-minute movie the other main character arrives. He flies into the coop by accident, hurts his wing and must stay with them. He’s an American hotshot named Rocky and all the hens swoon for him. He very reluctantly agrees to teach them how to fly. As the movie goes on the stakes get higher when the farmers decide they will no longer be in the egg business but the chicken pie one instead.
On paper, this movie could be an early-2000s boilerplate animation for kids but directors Park and Lord bring a visual panache and character warmth to the film that elevates the material. There are many story beats that are communicated by purely visual means (for example, Rocky’s reveal). The movie also fleshes out the characters it needs to by giving them interesting backstory that slowly reveals itself. When we find out the truth about the old World War vet it’s delivered in an unforgettable line. Chicken Run is rated G for general audiences. This rating usually means it’s just for kids and that there’s nothing there for adults. Luckily, this film lives up to the rating. It’s great for all ages and all types of viewing. Kids will enjoy the simple but surprisingly deep story. They’ll also be sucked in by the dark moments and laugh at the funny ones. Adults will giggle at the puns, easter eggs, and double entendres while also marveling at the technical aspects of the film. After nineteen years the tenderness, hope, and wonder of Chicken Run hasn’t aged a day.