"Chicken Run," which opened to surprisingly strong box office (in 10 days, it has taken in about $41 million, which is almost what the film cost) and critical raves (it's currently the best-reviewed movie in the country, according to a popular movie Web site), marks the feature debut of Aardman Animations, the British creator of the Oscar-winning "Wallace & Gromit" shorts. It's also the first real feature made in clay animation.
Like John Lasseter and his crew at Pixar, the Aardman animators spent years making excellent short films that entertained audiences--and taught the artists how to tell a story effectively, how to time a gag, how to delineate a personality through animation. "Chicken Run" is an impressive achievement, but Aardman has been setting new standards for clay animation since the debut of its five-part "Conversation Pieces" series for Channel Four Television in 1981. In other words, Aardman learned how to walk long before "Chicken Run" took flight.
"Chicken Run" represents a breakthrough for clay animation--and in its story and character development, it harks back to some of the Disney classics, a step forward and backward as it were.
Plasticine modeling clay was invented in England around 1897, and artists soon began using it for animated effects, such as the moving icing in the short "Fun in a Bakery Shop" (1902). For most of the next eight decades, it remained a crude variation of stop-motion. In the 1970s and early '80s, Will Vinton brought smoother motions to clay animation in the Oscar-winning "Closed Mondays" (1974) and other shorts.
But Vinton's films suffered from weak stories and a tendency to ape live-action. His feature "The Adventures of Mark Twain" (1985) was a collection of shorts linked by a disjointed narrative. Neither it nor Art Clokey's "Gumby: The Movie" (1995), an expanded version of the old TV show, attracted much attention from critics or audiences.
As "Chicken Run" demonstrates, the Aardman animators have developed a unique style of stop-motion acting that rivals the best-drawn animation in creating vivid personalities. The Aardman style relies on subtle changes in expression and small, carefully observed gestures. Rather than use a Tex Avery-style take with a character's eyes popping out of his head and his tongue unrolling like a carpet, the artists move a puppet's forehead in almost microscopic increments that make the character appear to be thinking. When Gromit looks up from his knitting at the Penguin in "The Wrong Trousers," his expressions reflect his suspicions about the sinister bird.
It's not unusual for a traditional animator to draw the beginning and end poses of a motion, then gradually work out the in-between stages. This method produces graceful, powerful animation, but it's difficult to create a feeling of spontaneity on the screen.
Stop-motion artists start with the puppet in the pose that begins a movement, then adjust its limbs and facial features in tiny increments before each successive frame is shot. The animators often don't know the exact pose the puppet will assume at the end of the motion until they reach it. And once an animator begins a movement, it's virtually impossible to go back and change anything--if there's a mistake, the process has to start at the beginning. The resulting movements are sometimes less polished than drawn motions, but they have a vitality and immediacy an audience can sense.
In "Chicken Run," these nuanced movements, combined with clever writing and strong vocal performances, result in characters that come alive on the screen. Mac (Lynn Ferguson), the Scottish inventor chicken, makes "thrust" the most absurd one-word solution to everyone's problems since Dustin Hoffman heard "plastics" in 1967. The addle-brained Babs (Jane Horrocks) recalls the well-intentioned but vacant relations who blight family reunions. ("Oooh, me life flashed before me eyes. It was really boring.")
When Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson) tells her terminally dim husband (Tony Haygarth) that the chickens' revolt is all in his head, the viewer can feel his limited intellect locking on that phrase, the way Daffy Duck seizes on "pronoun trouble" in Chuck Jones' classic cartoon "Rabbit Seasoning" (1952). Mac, Babs, Ginger, Rocky and the rest of the "Chicken Run" cast jump off the screen the way Jiminy Cricket, Thumper, Beast, Simba and other exceptionally drawn characters do.
In addition to underplaying the acting, directors Nick Park and Peter Lord include moments of stillness that give the characters and the audience a chance to breathe. Walt Disney understood the value of letting his characters pause and reflect: "Bambi" and the other classic features contain numerous quiet moments. "Hercules," "Titan A.E." and other recent animated films have suffered from excessively rapid cutting and a seemingly endless string of 3-D camera moves. Park and Lord eschew these visual pyrotechnics and let the characters tell the story.