'Chicken' Plot Flies

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 23, 2000

I CAN'T say for sure that parents will have more fun watching "Chicken Run" than their children. But the competition will be fierce.

While the kids enjoy the spectacle of crazy chickens (with northern English accents) running around in confused circles and trying to teach themselves to fly, parents and savvier kids will appreciate the clucky quips going down.

This movie, made by Aardman, the same creative team that brought you the wonderful "Wallace & Gromit" series, as well as other claymated shorts, is a hilarious semi-parody of all those classic, prisoner-of-war movies from "The Great Escape" to "Stalag 17."

I'm talking about a chicken thrown into solitary for trying to escape, then--like Steve McQueen, a.k.a. the Cooler King, in "The Great Escape"--tossing a ball against the wall with boredom. Except this Cooler King is throwing a Brussels sprout. Badoom! goes the sprout. Badoom! Badoom!

The birds (all gals, except the militaristic, crusty old Fowler, voiced by Benjamin Whitrow) are the hapless, egg-laying inmates of Tweedy's Egg Farm, a draconian, fenced-in hellhole run by the nasty Mrs. Tweedy (voice of Miranda Richardson), a scary camp commandant who suggests a cross between Andy Capp's wife and Joan Crawford.

Her husband, the slightly daft, hen-pecked Mr. Tweedy (voiced by Tony Haygarth) spends his time spying on the chickens, convinced they're organizing. But his wife refuses to believe these animals are smart enough.

But Mr. Tweedy is right. Led by Ginger (Julia Sawalha, Saffron in "Absolutely Fabulous"), the chickens have been trying to fly the coop. But the scoop-under-the-fence-with-a-spoon plan hasn't worked. The guard dogs are too alert and, frankly, most of the chickens are too fat to squeeze under. There's unmistakable anxiety in the air, too. They've just lost a chicken to--ulp--the dinner table. And things get worse when they learn Mrs. Tweedy is thinking of turning her low-profit egg-layers into chicken pie meat.

There's renewed hope when an American rooster named Rocky (Mel Gibson), an attraction at a traveling circus, flies into the enclosure. Literally.

This cocksure rascal, who's not eager to return to the big top, is an immediate hit with the chicks. But Ginger has other things in mind. Convinced he's their ticket out, she forces him to show the feathery inmates how to fly. After all, he came swooping in, didn't he? And if Rocky doesn't comply, she threatens, she's turning him in.

The shyster agrees, knowing these tubsters couldn't so much as lift off the ground. But he trains them anyway. And you haven't lived until you've seen claymated chickens attempting martial arts routines.

Will the plump old birds escape before Mrs. Tweedy tosses them into her state-of-the-art pie-making machine? Will Rocky, who calls himself the "lone free ranger," 'fess up to Ginger that he really can't fly? And when are Rocky and Ginger going to realize that, though they're clashing cultural beaks, their hearts are beating like drumsticks?

Producer-directors Nick Park and Peter Lord, with writer Karey Kirkpatrick, have created a marvelous world, full of unforgettable, distinctively featured characters.

In addition to Rocky and Ginger, there's Babs (Jane Horrocks), an enormous, but meek-voiced chick who's always knitting and completely oblivious to the danger without. There's a great pair of cockney rodent-rogues named Nick (Timothy Spall) and Fetcher (Phil Daniels), forever looking for ways to cheat the chickens of their eggs. And then there's Mac (Lynn Ferguson), the camp engineer, whose accent is thicker than oatmeal. "I swear she ain't using real words," says the uncomprehending Rocky, whose human voice, after all, belongs to the producer, director and star of "Braveheart."

The visual comedy is brilliant. At one point, Ginger leaps from a roof and thinks she really is flying, until she realizes she has simply landed on a huge heap of chickens--who just tried and failed at the same thing. And then there's the disastrous bungee-style experiment in which Babs is propelled through the air by an elastic harness, only to fly into the compound fence and come springing back.

"Me 'ole life flashed before me eyes," says Babs. "It was real boring."

CHICKEN RUN (G, 83 minutes) -- Contains a chicken death, and the prospect of more fowl deaths in the grinding machinery of a pie-making machine. Also contains two chickens trying very hard to kiss each other. Area theaters.

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