Aardman, Animated Movies, DreamWorks, Reviews

DreamWorks Animation Countdown 4: ‘Chicken Run’

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In 2000 DreamWorks and Aardman Animation released Chicken Run, the studios’ first feature film together. This partnership would eventually lead to a total of three films, but Chicken Run was, and still is, the most successful from that collaboration. The movie was an instant success, and to this day, it is still the highest grossing stop motion animated feature of all time, taking in more than $200,000 at the box office.

If you’re not familiar with Aardman Animation, it is a British animation company that was founded in 1972. DreamWorks worked with Aardman for a time, much like Disney worked with Pixar, but unlike Disney and Pixar, there was no merger. In fact, they split due to creative differences, having only made three of a planned five films together.

So, while DreamWorks owns the distribution rights to three of Aardman’s films, the two companies are rarely thought of together in the same way that Disney and Pixar are, and Aardman’s films are almost certainly not what most people think of when they think of DreamWorks. Aardman is its own company, and the three films the studio made with DreamWorks are just a fraction of its work. Aardman has its own sensibility, style,  and sense of humor, and this style and humor can be found all over Chicken Run.

The plot of Chicken Run is simple enough. A flock of chickens longs for freedom from their tyrannical owner, Mrs. Tweedy. If it sounds familiar, it’s because the classic “little guys take on the big guy” trope has been done many times before, but Chicken Run sets itself apart by being well written, clever, witty, and very, very British.

I grew up on British humor. Every Saturday night our local PBS station would have a two hour block of Britcoms, and my family never missed it. As a result, I now have a very dry sense of humor, and even as a kid, I loved Chicken Run’s very British sense of humor. Yes, it also has slapstick, visual gags, action, and wacky side characters, like most other films for kids, but there is just such an overwhelming Britishness about the whole thing that completely sets it apart from pretty much every other “kids” movie of the time.

The cast is all wonderfully British as well, with many staple Britsh actors like Julia Sawalha, Benjamin Whitrow, Imelda Staunton, Timothy Spall, Phil Daniels, Tony Haygarth, and of course, Miranda Richardson as the heinous Mrs. Tweedy. In addition to these, we also have the lone American actor, Mel Gibson, playing the only American character, Rocky the Rooster. This introduction of an American element into a British film seems quite fitting, given the companies involved.

While the main gist of Chicken Run is the fact that this flock of chickens is trying to escape from this farm, in true Aardman style, there is a lot more to the film than the simple premise might lead you to believe. For starters, for fans of stop-motion animation, especially of what many people call “clay-mation,” this film is absolutely masterful. There are so many small touches and design choices, and little things all over this movie that really help set it apart. I’d like to think this goes without saying for Aardman, but if you’re unfamiliar with Aardman to this point, take my word for it, the studio’s animation is brilliant.

Secondly, I mentioned it before, but the humor really helps set Chicken Run apart from any other animated film from that time, especially Dreamworks. While other movies marketed towards kids rely too much on bodily functions and pop culture references, (with a hefty dose of innuendo for the parents), Chicken Run leans toward wordplay and visual gags, dry wit and slapstick. The humor is just of a completely different tone than most American animation, and I love that about it. Not to mention the fact that it does not pander at all to kids and is written just as much for adults as it is for kids. There are plenty of jokes here that are just going to fly right over the kids’ heads, and that’s absolutely fine. The best kind of adult humor is not the kind that you’ll be embarrassed to watch with your kids, but the kind that is just smart and doesn’t need to resort to easy innuendo.

The adult humor is not the only thing that’s going to fly over kids’ heads; pretty much every reference in the film will too, starting with the setting. This film is basically set in a World War II internment camp, if not a straight-up concentration camp. The comparisons are so obvious, that even when we were kids, I had a cousin who could not stand the movie for that reason. I’m not sure how much I picked up on it myself back then; she was probably the one to point it out to me. Now I actually think it’s a rather clever touch, even though I realize that not everyone will feel that way.

Because of this bleak setting, the movie has drawn comparisons to many different WWII era films, as well as prison escape films. I’ve heard it called “Schindler’s List for Kids” among other things, but it is widely thought to have been inspired by the movie, The Great Escape. Wherever the inspiration originated, Chicken Run makes the most of its setting, but never lets it get too dark. Moments of darkness are usually followed with, or offset by, something funny, or at the very least darkly funny, such as when Edwina is being carried away to the chopping block, Babs cheerily inquires if she’s off on holiday.

Movies like Chicken Run are even better when you’re able to watch a film like this as an adult and catch things you never noticed when you were younger. I loved revisiting this film after having not seen it in many years. There were more jokes that jumped out at me now, and my nostalgia for the film was only bolstered by all the new things I was able to enjoy as an adult. Chicken Run is great when you’re a kid, and it’s great when you’re an adult, but I think it’s even better when you loved it as a kid and are able to come back and enjoy it on a whole new level as an adult.

Chicken Run may have been one of DreamWorks’ earliest films, but it’s probably held up better than many of its other movies. Pop culture references date films far too quickly, computer animation can date them even worse as technology progresses, but the timeless quality of both the humor and the animation really helps Chicken Run to stand the test of time. Watching it today, the humor all holds up, and the animation is just as creative and brilliant as it was 17 years ago. Chicken Run was and still is one of DreamWorks’ best films.

Have you seen Chicken Run? What did you think of it as a kid? As an adult? Let us know in the comments below.

Edited by: Kelly Conley

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About Jonathan North

Jonathan North is writer, photographer, video editor, and animation fan from Iowa. He studied advertising and design at Iowa State University, and also has degrees in multimedia and art. His favorite movie is Fantasia, and his favorite cartoon is Gravity Falls. Or maybe Steven Universe. He can’t decide. You can find more of his work on his blog, as well as his YouTube channel, where he reviews all manner things, including (almost) every version ever of Alice in Wonderland. His favorites are the 1999 version starring Tina Majorino, and of course, the 1951 Disney version. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr, @jonjnorth.