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The Great Chicken Escape 

*Chicken Run (PG)
Dreamworks

Peter Lord and Nick Park, creators of Wallace and Gromit, have crafted a devilishly clever clay animation feature film that is as thoroughly British in its humor as it is enjoyable to watch.

A band of hyperkinetic European chickens, imprisoned in a stalag-type egg farm run by a tyrannical husband and wife team, struggle to escape with the questionable aid of a cocky American Rooster named Rocky (voice by Mel Gibson). Rocky is a circus performing Rooster who is inexplicably able to fly, or so it seems. It only follows that Rocky should be able to teach the fat little egg-laying chicks to get airborne long enough to escape over the barbed wire fence that keeps them on a course with early death when they stop producing enough eggs.

Beyond implications about animal cruelty in food processing farms, Chicken Run pokes fun at cheer-for-the-hero escape stories and the very clich of the American male hero. The chickens trapped on Mrs. Tweedy's (voice by Miranda Richardson) Yorkshire poultry farm wouldn't stand a chance of ever escaping were it not for their fearless and caring leader, Ginger (voice by Julia Sawalha). Ginger rifles the group through every escape scenario she can imagine before landing on the idea of going over the fence instead of under. When Rocky, the American "lone free ranger" rooster, crashes into camp, it seems like the answer to Ginger's plans for the freedom of her flock and also for her romantic heart. But Rocky is more of a motivational speaker than a liberator of hens. Little facts about chickens and roosters not being able to fly, and roosters not being able to lay eggs, are clarified in the funniest of ways.

When Mrs. Tweedy discovers an ad for a chicken pie manufacturing machine that promises to make her a bundle in cash, it gives the movie a centerpiece comedy sequence that rivals the most knee-slapping scenes from Billy Wilder to Mel Brooks. The hapless Ginger falls into grave danger of becoming the next day's chicken pie as Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy test out their monstrously large cooking and packaging contraption. Ginger ends up dodging slippery slides, gravy shooting spray guns, mixed vegetables and a heck of a lot of heat from oven burners, en route from conveyor belt to cardboard box.

Chicken Run is a classy melding of story ideas from movies like The Great Escape, Cool Hand Luke, Stalag 17 and even Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. It's easy to take for granted the painstaking process of frame-at-a-time filmmaking that clay animation requires when watching Chicken Run because the filmmakers have done such a superb job of seamlessly blending flawless set and figure design with story and character.

Kid's movies are just as important to the summer season as the string of Hollywood blockbusters that rarely live up to audience expectations. Chicken Run is every bit as ridiculous as the title suggests and carries with it a look and style that, while referencing a tradition of escape movies, surprises the audience with its ingenuity and cheeky brand of British satire.

The little plasticine-and-silicone figures that portray the two human characters oddly resemble people we have seen before. Clay animation may not be in any position to squeeze out movies like Shaft, but crappy cartoon movies like Titan A.E. don't stand a chance against the estimable talents of the people behind Chicken Run.

-- Cole Smithey

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