The creatures aren't comforting any more

Chicken Run (U) | Peter Lord/Nick Park; 83 mins
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The Independent Culture

In the late 1980s, because a book I had translated, the collected Letters of François Truffaut, had been awarded a prize, I was obliged, under duress, to attend the BFI Awards ceremony, the sort of black-tie do I abominate. The evening droned remorselessly on until the announcement of the prize for Best Animated Short, when, to my teeth-grinding chagrin, the presenter informed us that, as a special treat, the winning film would be screened in its entirety. There being nothing, at that stage of the proceedings, I felt less like watching, I actually wondered whether I could decently nip out of the auditorium for the duration. I couldn't; the film was Nick Park's Creature Comforts; like everyone else in the audience, I was utterly enchanted by it; and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

In the late 1980s, because a book I had translated, the collected Letters of François Truffaut, had been awarded a prize, I was obliged, under duress, to attend the BFI Awards ceremony, the sort of black-tie do I abominate. The evening droned remorselessly on until the announcement of the prize for Best Animated Short, when, to my teeth-grinding chagrin, the presenter informed us that, as a special treat, the winning film would be screened in its entirety. There being nothing, at that stage of the proceedings, I felt less like watching, I actually wondered whether I could decently nip out of the auditorium for the duration. I couldn't; the film was Nick Park's Creature Comforts; like everyone else in the audience, I was utterly enchanted by it; and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

I mention that experience of mine because one of the pleasures of Creature Comforts was the discovery not just of a talent but of a world, a world such as one had never encountered in the cinema before, the world of what might be called naturalistic animation. Were it not for their biotypology, Park's penguins, turtles, chimps and polar bears wouldn't have seemed out of place in an episode of Coronation Street or EastEnders.

And now? The massive publicity attendant on its release has made it impossible to "discover" Chicken Run, a full-length, generously budgeted, DreamWorks-backed spectacle, complete with special effects, ear-splitting soundtrack and slick movie-star voices (Mel Gibson, Miranda Richardson, Phil Collins, Timothy Spall, etc). Like some modest publishing company or fashion house, Park's cottage industry has been swallowed up by a multinational corporation. It's been Spielbergised. The film has even been branded with the boss's logo. When Gibson's Rocky the Rooster soars over the Tweedy chicken farm on his bike, not even the tiniest of tots will miss the allusion to ET, Spielberg's trademark, his Mickey Mouse.

Such a promotion was probably inevitable. For my own part, I have to say that, leaving aside the question of whether it's any good or not - it is, although there are the inevitable problems - I find the very existence of a work like Chicken Run a trifle dispiriting. Why don't we all just declare ourselves American and be done with it?

Anyway, the film. As everyone must know by now, it's a parody of The Great Escape. True, the prisoners are all chickens (plus one harumphing ex-RAF rooster), but Stalag Tweedy's barracks, barbed-wire fences and pack of slavering dogs recall one of the less congenial POW camps of British war-film tradition. What it does have, however, is its own Steve McQueen, in the guise of Rocky, the self-styled Lone Free-Ranger, whose abrupt irruption into their wretched lives offers a last chance to its indefatigably tunnel-burrowing, catapult-constructing inmates, threatened by the imminent recycling of the Tweedy egg farm into a pie factory.

Now that sounds all very delightful, and much of it is. Observation is what Nick Park - withhis co-director and co-screenwriter Peter Lord - does best and Chicken Run's most memorable moments tend to involve little more than a chicken's expression of weary incredulity at the twittering obtuseness of her sisterinmates ("Chickenfeed!" clucks the dopiest of all, failing to realise that she's being fattened up for the chop. "My favourite!") or the preening Yankee braggadaccio with which Rocky runs his claw through his crop. There are enough tenderly observed vignettes of British ordinariness and ingenious decontextualisations of humble household artefacts - an eggcup, a jam biscuit, a pair of shapeless Y-fronts - to reassure us that the talent we originally responded to all those years ago is still intact. As for what one supposes to have been the principal influence and input of DreamWorks, the extended climax, it's as satisfyingly pyrotechnical as anyone could wish for - anyone, that is, not too nostalgic for the gentle, unspectacular Little Englandism of Wallace and Gromit.

I can't help thinking, though, that the film's basic flaw is one of conception. Especially for small children, the Tweedys' farm, from which we, like the chickens themselves, escape only in the last five minutes, is just too grungily claustrophobic a setting, too reminiscent of the rusting, gasometer-grim decor of Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Michael Radford's 1984, too queasily akin to that of another Orwell fable, Animal Farm, for most of us to want to spend 90 minutes in. It would be a tastelessly gross overstatement to draw any kind of parallel between the farm and a concentration camp; except that, later, when the pie-making contraption blows up, the explosion is definitely mushroom-shaped; and, again, when the fleeing chickens finally rise above the devastated farm, the overhead image uncannily recalls newsreel footage of Berlin circa 1945. I exaggerate, as we critics do, but the fact that such comparisons spring to mind at all suggests that something has maybe been miscalculated. At the very least, one finds oneself yearning for a bit of colour; and, in an almost permanently sombre film, one really does yearn for light.

Chicken Run has already opened in America (DreamWorks oblige) and its huge success there is certain to be duplicated here. Deservedly so far, apart from the reservations expressed above and a few narrative split ends (since the chickens can easily escape from the farm one by one, why don't they just do that?), it's a consistently inventive piece of drollery. I just hope that Park and Co don't lose sight of where their true gifts lie, in the celebration of the ordinary. Those of their characters whom we love the best may be fashioned out of clay, but it's human, all too human, clay.

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