Ink & Pixel: Special Thanksgiving Edition – Chicken Run

Last Updated on July 31, 2021

Ink & Pixel is a source of pride and joy for me as a writer and as such, I’m always striving to take this column further for those who read and enjoy it. In an effort to widen the reach of our continuously growing fan-base, Ink & Pixel has broadened its horizons with the inclusion of films from the Horror, Sci-Fi, Action-Adventure, and Fantasy genres. Additionally, if you yourself, or anyone you know, helped to make any of the amazing feature films found within this column, I would love to talk to you to further my knowledge. Please contact me at [email protected] so we can discuss it further.

Happy Thanksgiving, my fellow Americans! I’m mostly a broccoli au gratin and corn bread man myself, but for many, today is a day for gathering with loved ones, toasting to good health, and eating your weight in gravy-covered deliciousness. As it is a tradition in my home, I’ll be kicking off my annual holiday movie marathon, this evening. As an appetizer, I’ll take in a viewing of GARFIELD’S THANKSGIVING. After that, I’ll enjoy a helping of A CHARLIE BROWN THANKSGIVING. Then finally, as I settle into some mouth-watering apple and pumpkin pie, PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES will be there to give me the after-meal feels.

In hindsight, perhaps I should have researched director Jimmy Hayward’s FREE BIRDS. You remember that one, don’t you? It starred Woody Harrelson, Owen Wilson, Amy Poehler, and George Takei in a movie about turkeys who travel back in time to prevent themselves from being a staple of the Thanksgiving day meal. In truth, I’ve made an effort to look into this movie, though the only cool thing that I discovered about it is that Danny Carey (drummer of the Psychedelic Metal band Tool) provided his voice for one of the characters. With that, I think today would be a great day to look back at Aardman Animation’s first full-length feature CHICKEN RUN.

Released simultaneously in the United States and the United Kingdom in June of the year 2000, this dark stop-motion comedy was directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park. Produced by Aardman Animations and distributed by Dreamworks Pictures and Pathé, the film stars the voice acting talent of Mel Gibson, Julia Sawalha, Timothy Spall, Phil Daniels, Tony Haygarth, and Miranda Richardson.

Thanks to the combined writing effort of Nick Park, Peter Lord, Karey Kirkpatrick, Mark Burton, and John O’ Farrell, we are fortunate enough to have this clever and nuanced animated feature.For those of you who’ve never had the pleasure of viewing CHICKEN RUN, or perhaps haven’t seen it in several years, allow me to provide you with a brief synopsis of the film.  In the movie, a dreadful and deadly machine that effortlessly turns chickens into delicious pies has recently hissed and clunked its way to life. With the threat of death just days away, the chickens of Mrs. Tweedy’s Farm must hatch an escape plan that will grant them safe passage away from their inevitable and collective demise. After several of her thought-to-be brilliant schemes fail, Ginger, a strategist and leader of the community, meets Rocky, a runaway rooster with a silver tongue and the ability to fly.

After explaining away their situation, Rocky agrees to teach the concerned brood how to fly in exchange for preferential treatment while he heals from an undisclosed circus-related accident. Things quickly take a turn once it’s discovered that Rocky is nothing but a liar, and that he’s done nothing short of waste the group’s precious time. With a mass-execution set to go down in just a matter of days, it’s up to Ginger, her friends, and a discredited Rocky to pull off the greatest escape in chicken history – before Mrs. Tweedy’s machine makes pies of them all.

As you may already know, stop-motion animated films can take an exceedingly long time to orchestrate. In the case of CHICKEN RUN, Aardman and Dreamworks had spent two grueling years manipulating thousands of pounds of clay to bring the terrible truth lurking within Tweedy’s Farm to life. I suppose it’s a good thing that Aardman had already been in the business of creating top-notch stop-motion animation for over 25 years before embarking on the CHICKEN RUN project – a feat that was considered three times longer and ten times more complex than anything the team had ever done before.

While filming, the art department used metal armatures (or skeletons) as the foundation for every character. After the skeleton had been measured, fitted, and fashioned, foam latex and silicon were then added to the frame. These are the materials that shape a character’s individual appearence and personality.For the faces of the cast, a special blend of plasticine was used so that each could be easily manipulated while filming. In terms of numbers, the art department used an estimated 7,000 pounds and 57 unique colors of clay to complete CHICKEN RUN. Additionally, the fabrication department were tasked with producing a large amount of replacement parts for when a puppet would inevitably become damaged. Fun Fact: Aardman used a converted bubble gum machine to mix and produce the materials for their brood of chicken maquettes.

During production, as estimated 500 chickens were built for the making of CHICKEN RUN. In most cases, multiple armatures of varying sizes were crafted for use in different scenes. For example, if a shot called for the human characters of Mr. or Mrs. Tweedy to appear, smaller versions of the chickens were used as a way of compensating for the size difference. This stuff is crazy, right? I’m always amazed at the amount of care and craftsmanship that goes into the making of stop-motion animated films. Like the fact that the art department produced an array of “beak pieces” to match the individual speech patterns of every character in the film. Think about it: If there are 24 frames per second, and every frame needs a different “beak piece”, over the course of an 84-minute run time … yeah, I think you get my point. Wow.

By the time the chickens had flown the theatrical coop, CHICKEN RUN had served up a worldwide total of $224,834,564 in box office returns. Needless to say, Aardman Animations had proven themselves to be a creative team worth watching – particularly when you consider that their tale of poultry in peril was created using a budget of $45 million. What I find interesting about the success of CHICKEN RUN is that its earnings were damn-near equal in both the foreign and domestic markets. Here, allow me to break it down for you. In areas of the United States and Canada, the film had garnered an impressive total of $106,834,564. Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, this stop-motion-animated black comedy had escaped Mrs. Tweedy’s clutches with $118 million tucked beneath its feathers. If I’ve learned anything after years from writing this column, it’s that animated foreign films tend to gain most of their revenue from their own backyard. That being said, imagine what a delight it was to investors when Aardman had shown that they’re a force to reckon with, right out of the gate!

Personally, CHICKEN RUN is not only my favorite of Aardman’s films, it also happens to be one of my favorite animated films period. It’s a brilliant gem of cinema that manages to execute uproarious slapstick comedy while its characters are trapped in an oppressive setting where death and slavery consistently looms. It’s an emotional movie as well, wherein a lie from the film’s savior character threatens to undo the efforts of a group who’ve already suffered under the watchful eye of the Nazi-like Mrs. Tweedy and her dolt oof a husband for far too long.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though.  Amidst its more dour themes, there is also a good deal of fun, inspired comedy, and hope. Honestly, once you start seeing the parallels drawn between the chickens desire to never give up and the ways in which their incarceration serves for a mirror into humankind’s own cruel practices, the film achieves a level of depth not found in most blockbuster animated presentations. What’s more is that the whole feature is executed using a seamless and stylish form of stop-motion that only Laika Studios has managed to master over the years.

I do hope you enjoy your holiday. Be thankful for all that you have and for who you love. Until next time, be excellent to eachother.


About the Author

Born and raised in New York, then immigrated to Canada, Steve Seigh has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. He started with Ink & Pixel, a column celebrating the magic and evolution of animation, before launching the companion YouTube series Animation Movies Revisited. He's also the host of the Talking Comics Podcast, a personality-driven audio show focusing on comic books, film, music, and more. You'll rarely catch him without headphones on his head and pancakes on his breath.