Logline: In late 1950s Britain, a group of imprisoned chickens, fed up with their humdrum existence and impending doom, enlist in the help of an escaped circus rooster in order to fly away from their evil captors.

Ten years ago, DreamWorks SKG released their first ever animated film, produced entirely in-house by the famous stop-motion specialists Aardman Studios, Oscar winners for their “Wallace & Gromit” and “Creature Comforts” shorts. Since then, DreamWorks Animation has become the only sturdy and reliable creators of a true modern animation unit, obviously outside of Pixar, as far as box office returns are concerned. (The quality of said films, however, is not nearly as reliable, but more on that later.) What does all of this mean? How does it affect one’s view on DreamWorks as a company? And, really, does a humorously dry send-up of WWII concentration camp movies, starring daffy chickens, really still hold up?

Is It Better Or Worse Than I Remember?

It’s about the same. That is to say, it’s still delightful, strangely subversive, and just a tad underwhelming. I find the comedy as strong as it ever was (it helps when the humor itself is based around timeless, non-specific material), the characterizations top-notch and the action sort of remarkable, but still think that the middle lags just a tad due to repetitious plot devices.

In the summer of 2000, I was on a family vacation in Europe (mostly Italy) for a few weeks, so upon returning, I got myself to the Metreon immediately and saw four films in a row. These four were “Titan A.E.,” “Gone in 60 Seconds,” “Shaft” and “Chicken Run,” which acted as the best capper to an otherwise noisy day. I will never forget how refreshing that final film was to my impending headache, and it made the BART trip back home that much sweeter.

What’s Better About The Film?

  • From this point in history, we now know that this movie was so strong critically that it helped pave the way for the Oscars to create a Best Animated Feature category. (The inaugural winner two years later would be DreamWorks’ own “Shrek,” although we all know that “Monsters, Inc.” deserved that prize.) The invention of the category itself is both good and bad, good in that it gave a spot to some of the year’s best and most imaginative field and even brought attention to smaller films (e.g. “Spirited Away,” “The Secret Of Kells”), but worse in that it ghettoized an entire medium of film. (One of the many things I love about the new 10 Spots for Best Picture that was reintroduced in 2010 was bringing “Up” back into the race for the top spot.)
  • It shows to me that DreamWorks Animation is still capable of the best intentions, despite evidence to the contrary in following years. Once their 2D work went belly-up (I have a soft spot for their “Sinbad” film despite how few people remember it), their biggest money-makers have subsisted almost entirely on the “Shrek” model and have run it almost entirely into the ground. What started off as something clever has devolved into obnoxious supporting characters, pointless pop culture parodies that immediately date themselves, and bottom-of-the-barrel slapstick. I’m looking at you, the “Shrek” sequels, “Shark Tale,” “Madagascar” half of “Bee Movie” and three-fifths of “Monsters Vs. Aliens.” But rewatching this, I see that they still make noble efforts, ones that sometimes connect with the audience, and sometimes don’t. “Over The Hedge,” “Kung Fu Panda” and their continued work with Aardman proves that they’re not soulless beings, and that they’re still capable of telling stories above everything else. You know why this makes me feel all gooey and warm? Because the success of this year’s “How To Train Your Dragon,” an intimate and character-based bit of wonder, is a return to form. Don’t chase the money, guys. Chase the plaudits.
  • More jokes and plot occur during the opening credits than about 80% of A-list films today.
  • The Babs character (voiced by Jane Horrocks), the stand-out comic relief of the film, lives on spiritually on the eccentric and uproarious BBC sitcom “Ideal” in the form of ditzy but well-meaning Jenny (Sinead Matthews), right down to the overbite. Now airing on IFC here in the States, I cannot recommend the series enough. However, it’s a comedy about a Manchester-based drug dealer, and there are at least three people in my life who automatically dismiss any project that involves a positive view of marijuana consumption, so whatever you get from the show is your own thing. Me? I love it.
  • The Chicken Pie Machine segment, thanks especially to the hat reference at the end (and apparently a deleted bit involving a skeleton), is a better Indiana Jones sequence than almost anything in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” (Just between you and me, I didn’t hate “Crystal Skull” at all and find it underrated. Sue me. No, it’s not in the same league as the first three, but how about looking at it for what works? And no, there will be no Shia LaBoeuf ragging in this dojo. Close friends and colleagues know why.)
  • The climax, where they finally get to use their shoddy, homemade airplane, is an incredible action scene. It’s amazing how animated films such as “The Incredibles,” “Up,” “Dragon,” “Kung Fu Panda” and this have more exciting action sequences than most live-action films. Yes, animated films have the benefit of being completely freed from the laws of physics, but that’s no excuse anymore. Why? With the advent of nearly flawless CGI, live-action films can do just as well, and yet rarely do. You’re being shamed by films ostensibly made for children. Learn from this!
  • The best thing that makes this film better? Watching it with my PhD candidate wife and getting to hear her mumble about the “horror of Enlightenment,” Marxism and vegetarianism.

What’s Worse About The Film?

  • From today’s perspective, the casting of Mel Gibson as Rocky the Rooster lends the movie a very weird energy. I know they had no way of looking into the future and seeing “The Passion of the Christ” and his well-publicized alcoholic and anti-Semitic meltdowns, but it’s almost distracting now. I kept waiting for Rocky to call Ginger “Sugar Tits.”
  • On the same note, I don’t really understand why the bumbling and gullible but otherwise nice Mr. Tweedy continues to stay married to his homicidal witch of a wife. The majority of Aardman’s work has always done a good job of dimensionalizing their characters so well that even the villains often have a valid point (just taken a degree or two too far), but this doesn’t seem honest. Maybe the Tweedy’s two guard dogs should have been given voices and a plot. I don’t know. I’m just spitballing.

Free-Floating Thoughts:

  • I’m sure the film would be that much funnier had I seen “Stalag 17.” I’m a major Billy Wilder fan, so it’s strange that I still haven’t gotten around to it. At least I saw “Great Escape” when I was like 10, which the film references far more often anyway.
  • Maybe I should give “Flushed Away” another chance, which is the one Aardman property I don’t like. I was put off by the CG version of their trademark look, and didn’t think much of the story in addition, but I was also drinking heavily in those days, and I can assure you that affected how I viewed many movies and television shows. I’ll catch it on premium cable again one of these days.
  • Capitalizing on the impending success of “Mission: Impossible 2,” the promotional title for this, at one point, was “C:R-1.” Hilarious.
  • Speaking of the Oscars, it still amuses me that this could have possibly been nominated for Best Costume Design. Seriously. I remember them submitting a “For Your Consideration” campaign in the trades.
  • Another bit of proof that DreamWorks often has the right intentions, as IMDb tells me the following: “the original script featured the additional character: Ginger’s little brother Nobby. Dreamworks suggested that Nobby was left out, in order to make the film less cute.” That’s a good call, and kind of noble.
  • Ha! Also from IMDb: Early in development, Mac’s name was supposed to be short for MacNugget.
  • Just so you know, you should check out the Special Features on the DVD. (The film is unfortunately not on Blu-ray yet.) It’s not the most revealing behind-the-scenes work, but there are two things I love: 1.) A segment showing the kazoo orchestra, and 2.) a hidden “panic button,” which simply leads to a three second clip of the hens screaming.
  • I don’t remember all the details, but my sister and her good friend decided to show up at the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley dressed as chickens, did a chicken dance in the lobby, and impressed the clerks enough to gain free admission to the film. This is my family, folks.
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