Twenty years ago, a studio jumped from making short films and commercials to feature length award winning adventures that have charmed both the UK and the rest of the world. Aardman Animation’s Chicken Run is over twenty years old and as part of the Thanksgiving holiday, it’s only natural to lookback at this poultry in motion that launched the little Claymation studio into the film industry and shaped them (pun intended) into one of the top animation branches still going strong years later.
With the humongous success of the Wallace and Gromit shorts, several Hollywood studios approached the rising British studio at the Sundance Film Festival for a possible collaboration, including Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox. By this time, Aardman was known for their creative shorts and was in high demand in the UK producing commercials and music videos for musicians such as Sledgehammer:
Several key people at Aardman commented on the transition from shorts to feature films:
“Ever since the first Oscar, people have approached us about doing a feature film. I’m sure other companies might have rushed in faster and, heaven knows, we’ve had story ideas and scripts offered to us. But we were waiting for just the right thing, so it stayed on the back burner.” – Peter Lord
“Moving from shorts and commercials to feature films was a huge leap for us. We always knew we wanted to work in partnership with Hollywood, but waited to find arrangements which would guarantee the distinct creativity and independence of our studio. We feel we had this on this film, which allowed us to bring the best of Hollywood to Bristol, England.” – Michael Rose
“I’ve always found chickens to be funny, but we’ve put them in a dramatic setting – living and appalling life, trapped and put upon by humans. When you first see them, you might think, ‘Oh well, they’re just chickens,’ but then you realize that chickens are people just like everyone else. We wanted something evil, a kind of castle of doom. It’s closer to the Psycho house than a real Yorkshire farm, so it’s a bit of a cheat, I’m afraid.” – Nick Park
During the hype, Jeffrey Katzenberg from the newly created Dreamworks (co-founded with David Geffen and Steven Spielberg) offered to fly Nick Park, Peter Lord and David Sproxton from the company’s private jet to Los Angeles where they had their first Hollywood pitch during a dinner with the three heads, as covered in the book A Grand Success! The Aardman Journey One Frame at a Time:
“‘We want to do The Great Escape with chickens.’ There was a moment silence as the idea sank in, followed by a burst of spontaneous laughter on behalf of the Dreamworks team. It helped that Spielberg in particular seemed delighted by the idea. ‘I love it,’ he said. ‘That’s perfect.’ He admitted that when he was growing up The Great Escape had been one of his very favorite films…”
Following the pleasantries and several stories from Park that inspired the idea, the company attempted to adapt to the changes going on at the studio. First hiring Jack Rosenthal, he penned the layout of the screenplay before realizing that he couldn’t write jokes. Afterwards, James and the Giant Peach writer Karey Kirkpatrick was enlisted with the team realizing that this would take four years to complete between conception and animation. Kirkpatrick was an American in contrast to the British studio offering a different perspective considering the company financing the film.
But for Chicken Run the team found a way to organically incorporate a western perspective in the form of Rocky the Rhode Island Red. Going over several story elements, Rocky was written as American to be an insert for audiences outside the UK. Out of several Hollywood stars, the team decided on Lethal Weapon’s Mel Gibson who smoked Cuban cigars. His children were massive fans of Wallace and Gromit which immediately hooked the actor onto the project, though he would have to record his lines in Canada along with Ginger’s voice actress Julia Sawalha to keep the banter alive. This loophole helped dodge the United States Screen Actors Guild fee that irked both Aardman and Katzenberg. In addition to traveling, Sawalha was halted by immigration when both Park and Lord were ushered in without problems. Held in customs for an hour, the directors quarreled with the station until she was released.
Following storyboarding, thirty sets were utilized with many animators on site. At a length of 84 minutes, six seconds were filmed in one week shooting for eighteen months. Lord and Park were also adamant of having actors record multiple takes, a tradition that every cast member recruited at Aardman can tell you: Bill Nighy, Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Eddie Redmayne, and Tom Hiddleston.
Then there was Katzenberg who would check in every now and then, though not as hands on as he was with his home projects The Prince of Egypt, Antz and The Road to El Dorado. The Aardman heads recall the experience of anticipating his visits:
“Jeffrey was brilliant. He was always right on top of production. In some ways, he’s like the last of the great Hollywood Moguls.” – David Sproxton
“He’s the hardest working, most driven person I’ve ever met. He put in a full week’s work back in LA, then fly to Bristol and back over a weekend without rest, and pick up on his productions over there.” – Lord
“It was like he was Mrs. Tweedy storming into the chicken coop trying his best to catch us all out, but in fact I got on with him rather well. It was new and exciting, and having Dreamworks behind a film, it was a real learning process. He wanted a personal relationship. There was a problem in that we wanted Chicken Run to feel as British as we possibly could, and of course Jeffrey wanted to make sure it could be understood by American audiences. “ – Park
“Jeffrey Katzenberg and the British are about as antithetical as anything you can imagine…Aardman artists went to tea at 2:30 in the afternoon and Jeffrey was like, ‘What?'” – Former Dreamworks Employee
That battle between cultures would go on to influence their partnership in the future. It didn’t help that Katzenberg was unschooled in the process of stop-motion animation, unlike his knowledge of hand-drawn. When he worked at Disney, he went through the archival storage of past cells and read The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation by legendary animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. At Dreamworks, he was accustomed to the quick mouse clicks used to edit CGI films. Being that this was their first film, Sproxton recalls the shock he felt when Katzenberg gave him a grim reality check when it comes to being a movie studio:
“And just as we were finishing up on production Jeffrey Katzenberg asked us, ‘So, what have you got planned for the next movie?’ Of course, we hadn’t got anything planned. At this point, The Tortoise and the Hare was in development, but there was nothing definite for Aardman to announce.”
Afterwards, the filmmakers and voice actors were taken on an interview tour with many journalists asking them questions surrounding their prisoner escape film, one of which was a Spanish journalist dressed as a rooster:
“Were we just interviewed by a chicken?” – Park
A few weeks before release, Katzenberg approached the Aardman heads on the Dreamworks jet about the box-office risks despite backing the film with more print and advertising: a stark contrast to his confident reputation known throughout Hollywood. This was also right off the heels of The Prince of Egypt, Antz and The Road to El Dorado, all of which cost a fortune to produce and either proved modestly profitable at best or a financial loss at worst:
“This weekend, we’re going to be jumping off a cliff. This may work, or it may not. So, we’ll just hold hands and jump together.” – Katzenberg
“Not really being aware of what was going on behind the scenes at Dreamworks, this came as a real surprise, and not a pleasant one. I now realize that he may have been thinking of the whole future of his company. I don’t believe I ever saw a crack in his armor before that or afterwards. They had four pretty moderate successes. They got a sort of vestigial Disney audience going to see them, but it wasn’t an audience that was passionate about them. Chicken Run had an entirely different appeal. It was irreverent, it was funny. So, if we were now to have only a moderate success, or a flop with us, that might have been disastrous for Dreamworks. We were in business with them for ten years, and in that period, they had to refinance three times. So, there was a lot of anxiety around that place in its early years.” – Sproxton
After all the stress, how is the film as a whole?
In the prison known as Tweedy’s Farm, the chickens are forced to lay eggs, lest they end up as dinner for Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy (Tony Haygarth and Miranda Richardson). When this results in minuscule profits, the owners switch to producing chicken pies as the headstrong Ginger (Julia Sawalha) concocts plans to escape. The answer comes in the form of Rocky Rhodes (Mel Gibson): an American rooster who can teach them to fly, as well as rodent thieves Nick and Fetcher (Timothy Spall and Phil Daniels) who’ll steal anything for some golden yolks.
You can tell this is Aardman’s first film because it takes a more nuanced approach compared to Wallace and Gromit. The stakes are higher with the chickens racing against the clock to fly over the fence after many failed plans and hen house politics. Is it better to accept three squares a day in exchange for an egg or to control your own destiny in the grass fields? The chickens are so diverse between the knitting airhead Babs (Jane Horrocks), the calculating genius Mac (Lynn Ferguson) and the brash Bunty (Imelda Staunton) that it warrants different perspectives on the situation. There’s also the main leads Ginger and Rocky Rhodes, and while they don’t have enough chemistry to be a couple (early 2000’s sitcoms had couples fighting until they eventually got together) their scenes are pivotal to the emotional core for themselves and those they care about. The idea that you can both laugh yet sympathize with these birds to the point of turning vegetarian is what makes everything feel alive. That’s not to say there isn’t any comedy with the rats cracking egg jokes when the chickens suffer through flight school or when they steal items from the farm:
Despite its British roots and the culture wars behind the scenes, Americans can easily enjoy this with the suspenseful set pieces, one of which throws the two leads into the belly of the pie machine:
And if Norman Bates’s mother was animated, she would be Mrs. Tweedy. The way she hen pecks Mr. Tweedy and eventually lets out her inner beast against the chickens makes her one of the best Aaardman and Dreamworks villains. Of course, Mr. Tweedy has his moments with suspicions of his flock being more organized than his wife believes. Accompanied by John Powell and Henry Gregson-Williams’s dramatic score with English horns and string quartets that feels more like The Shawshank Redemption (if it weren’t for the kazoos), this makes a fantastic first impression for the studio. It’s not just the story; it’s the many characters in the coop coming together on what seems like an impossible task. But like Ginger says, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Even after studios such as Laika improved stop-motion technology, Aardman’s animation shows the care and attention the team poured into this project. The way the camera swoops through each scene as the animators move each character one frame at a time, their fingerprints visible every other frame and the fluidity and dedication to making the impossible real is still present in their first feature. Several crowd scenes inspire the inner animator that wonders how people can pull off such complicated shots with more than a dozen characters running from left to right. The switch to widescreen makes all the background gags more visible such as a plate of chicken bones following a gruesome execution or newspaper gags that American Dad might have plagiarized. These might be chickens, but the animation conveys to us that they are more human than fowl.
Chicken Run is still one of Aardman’s best features after twenty years. The story is littered with likable quirky characters, the plot creates an unsettling sense of security, the set pieces heighten the stakes with diabolical villains, and the timeless animation holds, up fingerprints and all. This shows the best that stop-motion features can offer despite how much more time it takes to create compared to other mediums. If you haven’t seen this yet, make it a Thanksgiving tradition for yourself and the family if you love animation, British humor or all of the above. It’s the escape that redefines escapism.
Pros: Timeless animation, diabolical villains, dramatic score, unsettling atmosphere, inventive set pieces, quirky characters
Cons: Forced romantic interest
Upon release, Chicken Run became the highest grossing stop-motion film with a worldwide gross of $224 million, breaking Aardman into the film industry. It was also the only movie in the Dreamworks partnership to satisfy both parties. Despite critical acclaim, a sizable box-office, and an academy award for best animated feature, 2005’s Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit was viewed as a financial disappointment by the American studio who took a write down of $4 million and $656,000 on a revenue of $81 million after fourth quarter announcements.
Coupled with fights over incorporating American sensibilities in British films, the cancellation of The Tortoise and the Hare due to story problems, and their third film Flushed Away being produced in Los Angeles as opposed to the Bristol studio (Aardman realized that making a stop-motion film surrounded by water would be impossible), the companies announced a split before the latter film flopped at the box-office, cementing the divorce. At the time, Aardman was working on a caveman adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Twits called Crood Awakening, with John Cleese co-writing the screenplay. After going their separate ways, Dreamworks absorbed the rights and eventually reworked it into 2013’s The Croods. On top of that, many of the sets and figurines from both Chicken Run and the Wallace and Gromit shorts, as well as accounting records, were destroyed on October 10th, 2005 when a fire burned down a storage unit around 2:30 AM. The Aardman heads reacted with varying perspectives:
“To the outside world, it was a disastrous event and a big story, but it didn’t make a great emotional impact on me. I’d never even seen this building before, during or since. It was out of sight and out of mind. Her majesty the queen mentioned the fire to us when David and I received our CBEs from her. ‘A great part of your history,’ she told us sympathetically, but I can’t remember feeling it at the time. There were some glorious sets and props from Chicken Run, notably the pie machine and the giant wooden bird the chickens escaped in. I didn’t miss them until years later when we put together a historical exhibition of the studio’s work. Then their losses really struck me, and I’m sad that any last original drawings from our first creation, Aardman, were lost. They would’ve been a fascinating reminder of our beginnings.” – Lord
“When I put the phone down on Kieran, I felt oddly detached. It was shocking and horrible to lose so much of our work, but it was hard to know what to feel when I didn’t have a clear idea of what was in the warehouse in the first place.” – Sproxton
“Even though it is a precious and nostalgic collection and valuable to the company, in light of other tragedies like the earthquakes and tsunamis, today isn’t a big deal.” – Park
Since the split, Aardman has remained independent partnering with several studios over the years. They produced their next Wallace and Gromit short A Matter of Loaf and Death for Christmas day securing a large audience upon release. It went on to win a BAFTA and Annie award, though sadly it marked the final time Peter Sallis would voice Wallace before his retirement in 2012 and his death in 2017.
They then teamed up with Sony Pictures Animation producing both Arthur Christmas and The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists (changed to Band of Misfits for Americans because scientist is taboo in marketing), based on the book by Gideon Defoe who also penned the screenplay. Both were critical hits though the former faced heavy competition from The Muppets and Twilight. However, it won a San Diego Film Critic’s award for Best Animated Feature and an Annie Award for Bill Nighy’s performance as Grandsanta. Meanwhile, Pirates secured several nominations at the Annie Awards and an Oscar nomination for best animated feature. But following the low American box-office, Aardman cancelled a planned sequel and split with Sony. Sproxton and Lord expressed their grief on why the film didn’t live up to financial expectations:
“Sony turned down the gas on the film’s publicity and advertising spend as the marketing tracking wasn’t strong, so a poor box-office return was predictable.” – Sproxton
“I know we made two great films which deserved a much bigger audience, but releasing a film especially in the states falls somewhere between a dark art and a lottery. Personally, I felt so happy in the world of the Pirates, so comfortable there. I loved the way it looks and feels, the richness, the warmth, the good humor, the absolute daftness of it all. It seemed like a playground to me and naturally I wanted to share that feeling with the widest possible audience.” – Lord
Aardman then teamed with the Paris based StudioCanal to produce their next film Shaun the Sheep Movie; a film adaptation based on the spin-off show centered around the character from A Close Shave. It made more than twice its budget and was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, losing to Pixar’s Inside Out.
Their next film Early Man was just as positively received, but in one of the biggest mismanaged release dates, it came out the same weekend as Marvel’s Black Panther, sealing its box-office fate by making $54 million on a budget of $50 million. They then produced Farmageddon: A Shaun the Sheep Movie, releasing it in UK theaters only to have Netflix scoop up the international distribution rights. Since then, they’re partnered with the streaming platform to make more Shaun the Sheep shorts and their new holiday special Robin Robin.
In April 2018, a sequel to Chicken Run was announced taking place after the events of the first film and centering on Ginger’s daughter. Originally scheduled for theaters, the rights were acquired by Netflix with Flushed Away and Paranorman co-director Sam Fell directing. Meanwhile, Nick Park, Peter Lord, and David Sproxton will serve as executive producers. Mel Gibson would not be recruited following several incidents and even Julia Sawalha was left in the dust with the filmmakers citing that she sounded too old for the part:
“’Some of the voices (not yours, I agree) definitely sound older. We will be going ahead to re-cast the voice of Ginger.’”
Sawalha took to Twitter accusing the company of ageism and offering other comments:
“Let’s be frank, I feel I have been unfairly dismissed. To say I am devastated and furious would be an understatement. I feel totally powerless, something in all of this doesn’t quite ring true. I trust my instincts and they are waving a red flag.”
What a ruffle of feathers we have here.