“It’s The Great Escape… with chickens.”
The pitch meeting for Chicken Run must have been rather out of the ordinary, but by the time the directors, Nick Park and Peter Lord of the Bristol based Aardman Animations Studio, sat down to lunch with DreamWorks founder Steven Spielberg in 1997, they had six Oscar nominations between them, resulting in three Best Animated Short Oscars for Wallace and Gromit director Nick Park. That kind of hardware comes with a certain amount of leverage, plus they were lucky – Spielberg owned chickens. “We hit it off really well. Our first meeting with Spielberg was in a restaurant eating chicken, talking about chickens,” Nick Park recalled when the film was released three years later in June of 2000. (Paul Fischer Dark Horizons, 6/23/00)
The idea for Chicken Run came from a drawing Nick Park’s did of a chicken digging her way out of a coop with a spoon, to Park, “It just struck us that it resembled a scene from a POW escape movie with chickens, and we pitched that to DreamWorks. It seemed like the perfect theme for us to play with, and we could pick up on the whole escape movie genre.” (Paul Fischer Dark Horizons, 6/23/00) And pick up on the escape movie genre it does. The whole opening scene is a hilariously elaborate homage to The Great Escape with the part of Steve McQueen played by a plucky Buff Orpinton hen named Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha). Each increasingly intricate escape attempt results in Farmer Tweedy throwing the troublemaking fowl into the “Cooler” where she bounces a Brussels sprout against the wall as unflappably as McQueen’s Capt. Hilts with his baseball. Really it had to be chickens as co-director Peter Lord explained, “It wouldn’t have done with any other animals. Not least because chicken huts looked just like the barracks in Stalag 17 or The Great Escape. It was that image, the perfection of that match, that seemed so amusing. And knowing that chickens were so unheroic, proverbially unheroic animals, it was really funny to take them and make them our stars.” (One Guy’s Opinion, 6/16/00) Park and Lord knew that much of their target audience would not have seen The Great Escape or Stalag 17, but the absurd juxaposition of the deathly serious plight of a prisoner with chickens was too good to pass up, and DreamWorks agreed.
Up to this point Aardman Animations had been extremely successful as a studio for short films and advertisements animated in plasticine, but in order to use this painstaking Claymation process for a feature film they needed the backing of an American studio, and because of those three Oscars on Nick Park’s shelf they were being courted by Disney, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, and DreamWorks. DreamWorks won out because of the fourth guy at that lunch table in 1997, Jeffrey Katzenberg. Katzenberg was described at the time of being “an obsessive, persevering guy,” something he happily conceded: “I have been accused of that from time to time. I don’t want to claim innocent. I’ve been chasing these guys for five or six years, ever since I first saw [Nick Park’s first Oscar-winning short] Creature Comforts.” (Dan Cox Variety, 12/3/1997) The 84 minute film took a year and half and thousands of pounds of plasticine to make. Park explained what happens to your perception of time if you have to handcraft 20 frames for each second of screen time: “Animators think of time differently. Producing three seconds a day, you learn to value how much you can fit into those three seconds. I’m amazed how many words you can say in a second. It may only be three seconds a day, but boy what you can do.” (BBC, 7/14/00) It is this enthusiasm and attention to detail that makes Chicken Run a joy to watch. The little visual puns coupled with a very
witty screwball script by Karey Kirkpatrick allow the film to be more than a one joke remake of The Great Escape, and Ginger makes a compelling heroine. There is also
something very satisfying about watching a prison escape movie that so handily passes the Bechdel test at every turn, you’d actually be hard pressed to come up with another.
Chicken Run was a huge success for DreamWorks and Aardman Animations, grossing $175m and becoming an important factor in the Academy’s decision to include a Feature Animation category in the next year’s Oscars, but eight years later, after the struggle of making a Wallace and Gromit feature film, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the bloom was decidedly off the rose, and Aardman and DreamWorks parted ways. “[DreamWorks] really wanted us to do a Wallace and Gromit film but at the same time they also had half a mind on how they could make it work in the States. That was always the question […] constant notes about how it’s going to work in middle America, or how some kid doesn’t understand what some northern phrase is.” (Owen Gibson The Guardian, 7/21/08) Still Chicken Run came during the blissful honeymoon, when Park and Lord were golden boys whose instincts were implicitly trusted. It could just have been because he was promoting the film at the time, but in 2000 when Chicken Run was released Park seemed genuinely impressed by the freedom he had been given, “We thought that putting a lot of obscure English accents in there might cause a problem, but as long as the jist of what they were saying came across, that was fine. DreamWorks seemed to respect so much what we do; they were incredibly supportive.” (Paul Fischer Dark Horizons, 6/23/00) That respect and support is in every delightful frame of Chicken Run, and audiences are the luckier for it.
“In a more conventional movie, the plot would proceed on autopilot. Not in Chicken Run, which has a whimsical and sometimes darker view of the possibilities. One of the movie’s charms is the way it lets many of the characters be true eccentrics […]This movie about chickens is more human than many formula comedies.” – Roger Ebert Chicago Sun-Times 6/23/00