It's magic, I tell you. Pure magic.
There's no other way to explain what I saw on Thursday night in Century City.
For those of you who have never been to an all-media screening, it's usually a room that considers itself too hip for whatever's showing. They see everything that comes out, almost literally, and they're jaded to most films, especially ones that don't appear with tons of attendant hype.
In the case of CHICKEN RUN, I don't understand anyone who's not already 100% sure they're going to see the film on opening day. Look at the director credit, folks. Nick Park and Peter Lord. What more do you need? That's like if DINOSAUR had actually been directed by Walt Freakin' Disney. Peter Lord is one of the founding partners of the exceptional Aardman Animation, and Nick Park is the brilliant animator whose CREATURE COMFORTS earned the company its first Academy Award, earning two more Oscars since then. Together, the two of them are major talents, exceptional film artists, and the idea of them producing a feature should make you lose your mind from sheer anticipation.
The great news is that the film delivers every possible thrill you could anticipate and then keeps on going. The film is TOY STORY good. The film is brilliantly funny, but it's more than that, even. It's a beautiful and unique piece of film art, and it has to be seen to be appreciated. If you have any love of this medium, you owe it to yourself to walk into this movie with an open mind and a ready laugh.
Which takes us back to Thursday night, to the all-media screening held in Century City. As people settled in around us, and as I listened to people in the lobby, the sense I got was that the film was no one's first choice for the evening. I saw a few people there, animation experts and professionals, who I'm sure appreciated the potential of an Aardman feature but the animation nuts were outnumbered by the general disinterested public by a pretty wide margin. Don't blame DreamWorks. They've been sending out video copies of the Wallace & Gromit films to critics in an effort to ensure that everyone appreciates the pedigree of the picture. Still, as the film began, there wasn't that hush of respect and expectation that you get when it's a "big" picture. The crowd took a few minutes to settle in, to shut up.
I'd seen the opening of the film before, way back last fall, and much of it was the same as I remembered. It was tighter, though, sharper, and there was more material. The stuff that fleshed it out added layers of subtlety that weren't there in the rough pass. The whole opening five minutes is a direct reference to THE GREAT ESCAPE, and before someone starts the "homage vs. ripoff" debate below, allow me to finally educate you on the difference. It's an homage when the filmmaker fully expects us to not only recognize the reference, but for the reference to cause some sort of emotional response in us. It's a ripoff when the filmmaker just lifts something cool and uses it again because he doesn't have something better to use that's original. Believe me, the Aardman team proves how well they're able to build original, exciting set pieces in scene after scene of this film. For the opening, they are making specific pointed reference to THE GREAT ESCAPE, and it's glorious. It's funny even if you don't know the movie, of course, which is another sign of just what awesome skill these guys possess. They're able to make both text and subtext pay off in each sequence. Here, the whole opening sets up the idea that Ginger is the main instigator of each of the escape attempts made by the chickens of Tweedy's Farm. Farmer Tweedy knows the chickens are up to something, but Mrs. Tweedy will hear none of it. She knows that chickens are stupid, and she won't listen to nonsense about them organizing. At the end of the opening credits, we seem to have a pretty good idea of the rules of the world. Ginger will try to escape. Mr. Tweedy will see all of it. Mrs. Tweedy won't believe it. Hilarity ensues.
If this were the Hollywood version of the film, that might be true. But Aardman wasn't making a kid's film here, something to slap on the side of a Happy Meal. No, they're making something with a genuine beating heart, something wonderful, and in order to let us appreciate just how alive these chickens are as characters, directors Park and Lord do something that I didn't expect when I walked in.
The chickens all line up for morning roll call, and Mrs. Tweedy comes out to walk the line. As she does, she consults a chart in her hand that tracks egg production. Keep in mind, we're only about eight minutes into the movie right now. Ten at the most. We're still getting to know who's who. Mrs. Tweedy finds one row of nothing but zeros and stops in front of one particular chicken. With no real fanfare, she picks the hen up and walks out of the chicken yard into a small side room of the house, where there's an axe wedged into a stump. As Mrs. Tweedy enters, we find her shadow silhouette on the wall. She lays the chicken down, raises the axe…
And the other chickens hear the unmistakeable CHOP from where they are.
Just like that, the stakes are set. These chickens must escape Tweedy Farm, or they will be killed. A few scenes later, a skeleton on the farmer's table confirms that, yes, they will also be eaten. This is horrifying in the film. It's the cloud under which all of our main charaters live, and even when the film is at its side-splitting funniest (which is frequently), there is a sincere urgency that never lets up.
So many films work overtime to set up a great atmosphere these days, then blow it when they introduce that darn pesky plot. With CHICKEN RUN, Park, Lord, and screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick prove themselves incredibly graceful at telling their story with grace and economy, always balancing complex emotions, always managing this huge ensemble of personalities. And make no mistake… these aren't just simple clay chickens that populate this film. No, not at all. These are all wonderful characters who we are delighted to meet and grow to know over the course of the film. Aardman has managed once again to take simple plasticene and give it a soul.
And that's the magic I mentioned before.
When you look into the eyes of Ginger, voiced with great charm by Julia Sawalha of ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS fame, you see all the hopes and dreams she's clinging to in the face of seemingly impossible odds. You see the determination that keeps her going each day. When you look into the eyes of Rocky, voiced with a sort of easy smarm by Mel Gibson, you see the ego that just barely masks the panic. You see the moment when he stops being a con and starts making good on his promises, a switch being thrown inside him somewhere. When you look in the eyes of Mrs. Tweedy, given a memorable sense of malice by Miranda Richardson, you see all the accumulated miseries of being a poor farmer's wife, and you see the greed backed up, twisting her from the outside in. You see how little regard she has for anything but her own comfort. All of these things are communicated through the simple clay faces that Aardman specializes in, and I'll be damned if I understand it. I can marvel at it, and I can recognize it for the alchemy that it is, but I don't begin to understand how it is that this amazing team of animators not only find a way to make each of these characters live, but also manage to give them each a different and unique sense of life.
There are other performances worth mentioning here. Jane Horrocks, who stood out as a beacon of wonderful in the truly godawful LITTLE VOICE, is riotously funny as Babs, the least complex chicken in the bunch. There's a delicious blankness to her, a sort of Zen simplicity, and when you look in her eyes… there's nothing but quiet contentment. Behind those particular eyes, it's all green grass and blue skies. Phil Daniels and Timothy Spall are a wonderful, sly comedy duo as Fetcher and Nick, a pair of rats who basically serve the same purpose as Morgan Freeman in SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION; they're the ones who can get things. Lynn Ferguson comes across as a female version of Spud from TRAINSPOTTING, her impenetrable Scottish accent providing a great running joke for Mel Gibson's Rocky. Benjamin Whitrow gives great bluster as Fowler, the crusty old RAF veteran who doesn't trust the mysterious Rocky for many reasons, not the least of which is he's a Yank. Fowler's got the single funniest line in the picture, an act three revelation that just destroyed the audience I saw the film with.
Oh, yes… that jaded all-media screening audience. The one that was too hip for the room going in. Well, they were helpless in the face of such a sterling piece of entertainment. By the end of the film, they were cheering and clapping, fully engrossed in the experience. It was amazing to listen to. Of course, I was cheering and clapping just as hard as the rest of them, if not harder. At every turn, there's some fresh delight, some visual pun or verbal pirouette. In scene after scene, Park and Lord prove that their understanding of the language of cinema is as keen as anyone working in live action today. Scorsese… Joel Coen… Spielberg… Fincher… these are the directors who are the true peers to Park and Lord. These guys offer up flawless compositions, a cast directed to perfection, and a remarkable sense of pacing, and they never seem to break a sweat. It all looks easy, effortless. Like the greatest films, this one feels like something that just happened, natural and alive and organic. It's one of those special films you know you're just watching for the first time. You know there's dozens more viewings in the future, and you're already looking forward to them, even before the movie ends.
This afternoon, DreamWorks is rolling CHICKEN RUN out across the country in a studio sneak. If you're one of the ones who is smart enough to go, then you have a duty, the same one that Harry and I have now as well. You have to convince people to go. You'll want to, trust me. After you see this film, you'll feel evangelical about it. You'll want to grab strangers and tell them, "It's not what you think it is! It's amazing! It's the single greatest film about chickens ever made!" If you do that, though, they'll lock you up, so try starting with friends and family. Take them back to see it with you. You won't mind. After they've witnessed the film, they'll be eager to take other people to see it. Word of mouth is going to be crucial to this film. It's got TITAN AE opening a week before it and ROCKY & BULLWINKLE opening the week after. This film has the potential to be one of the summer's biggest sleepers, but it could also turn into this year's IRON GIANT, a perfectly satisfying piece of pop entertainment that simply vanishes without a trace for no good reason.
Don't let that happen. See the film. You'll be so glad you did, and the more of you who take that chance, the more of you there will be to carry the word to others. You'll be convincing, too. You'll rant and you'll rave and you'll try to find the words to describe it, and your friends will see it in your eye… they'll see how surprised you were, how impressed you are, and they'll have no choice but to go, and it won't even matter than you just keep saying the same thing over and over, shaking your head in stunned disbelief…
It's magic, I tell you. Pure magic.