Nick Park, Peter Lord for “Chicken Run”

Computers may indeed have changed the face of movie animation, but along comes Chicken Run, an irreverent and whimsical comedy about a group of chickens trying to escape from a tyrannical chicken farm. Inspired by classic war films such as The Great Escape and Stalag 17, and directed by Oscar winners Nick Park and Peter Lord, their first feature film uses clay animation. There’s little doubt that their zesty ‘chick flick’ is destined to be one of the year’s most anticipated films. Paul Fischer spoke to the two Brits in Los Angeles, who continue to change the face of modern animation.

Santa Monica’s trendy Shutters Hotel seems eons away from Bristol’s Aardman Studios, usual home of down-to-earth clay animators Peter Lord, founder of the distinctive Aardman Studios, and Nick Park, creator (and bona fide Oscar winner) of Wallace and Gromit. The latter is less assuming, quiet and unpretentious, while Lord, with his longish grey hair and beard, is more gregarious and self-assured of the two. “I guess that means we complement each other”, says Lord. It’s been almost five years since the two clay cartoonists came up with Chicken Run. Now that it’s all over, one wonders whether the end result is what was envisaged way back when.

“When we started, if I could have seen this as the final punchline, I would have been really happy,” reflects Lord. “Is it exactly what we envisioned back then, I can’t remember. Is it great? I think it is”, he adds laughingly. In Chicken Run, based on an original story as conceived by the film’s directors, our heroine is the unflappable Ginger (beautifully voiced by British comic Julia Sawalha), a bird determined to fly this Nazi-run coop, along with her more reluctant chickens. On this chicken farm, any bird that does not lay the right quota of eggs is in for the chop – literally. Try as they might, escaping is not easy, to put it mildly (the opening sequence is a hilarious look at the birds’ failed escape attempts). Then suddenly, out of the sky, an irascible rooster called Rocky (a wonderfully funny and engaging Mel Gibson) lands at Ginger’s feet. He’s on the run from the circus, while the fiercely determined Ginger wants Rocky to teach her how to fly. Time is running out, they need each other or their fates will be sealed.

The initial idea for Chicken Run had an unexpectedly simple genesis, recalls Park. “It was a single idea that struck us. It came from a sketch that was in my sketchbook, of a chicken digging its way out of a chicken coop with a spoon. It just struck us that it resembled a scene from a POW escape movie with chickens, and we pitched that to DreamWorks. It seemed like the perfect theme for us to play with, and we could pick up on the whole escape movie genre.”

There’s little doubt, especially when seeing the film’s hilarious opening scenes, that the style of the film got its inspiration, in part, by the Steve McQueen classic, The Great Escape, which Lord first saw in Australia, where he spent part of his childhood Now he and his co-director have taken elements from that film and incorporated them into this animated chicken farce. Lord says that he’s not concerned that those (and other cultural) references may find themselves above many a child’s head. “I don’t think that matters. A lot of inspiration like that comes from your favourite movies or instances in your life and you tend to draw on those. And the sorts of movies that you use tend to be feel-good movies such as Great Escape, as well as Star Wars and Indiana Jones, which are also in the film.”

When one meets these two unconventional Brits, it seems unlikely that they could end up in bed with a Hollywood studio such as DreamWorks. It’s ironic that when they first met the studio’s honchos, Spielberg and Katzenberg, they discovered that the former has his own chicken farm, no less. “We hit it off really well”, recalls a smiling Park. “Our first meeting with Spielberg was in a restaurant eating chicken, talking about chickens.” But without Hollywood, their first foray into feature filmmaking may well have been an unfulfilled dream, adds Lord. “I think it would have been very difficult to raise the funding outside Hollywood. I don’t know because I don ‘t do the deals, but my impression is when you’re trying to fund the thing with European money, it’s difficult, because no individual has the financial clout of a Hollywood studio.” Before DreamWorks came to the party, Lord concedes that “There was no way we thought we’d do it. It seemed so tactically impossible”.

The British duo from England’s North worked on a film whose screenplay seemed very British in terms of humour and language, yet Lord insists that at no time was there any pressure to make the film more accessible for an American audience, says Park. “Very surprisingly there was no interference on that level at all. We thought that putting a lot of obscure English accents in there might cause a problem, but as long as the JIST of what they were saying came across, that was fine. DreamWorks seemed to respect so much what we do; they were incredibly supportive.”

It wasn’t the studio that insisted on an international star of Mel Gibson’s calibre come in to play the irascible Rocky the Rooster either; Mel was pretty keen on the idea, Park explains. “He’d been a great fan of Wallace and Gromit, and one year invited us to lunch following the Oscars, for no reason. As we were developing Rocky, we thought this character was so similar, and so we animated a line from Maverick to Rocky’s puppet and it fitted really well.”

Park and Lord have created a film that is fun for kids to watch but at the same time clever and sophisticated for an older audience “which was our aim from the outset”, insists Lord.

For Wallace and Gromit fans, Chicken Run is the next phase, and even audiences who haven’t quite discovered these Oscar-winning shorts, this may well be their perfect induction into the comic world of Peter Lord and Nick Park, who have remained true to themselves and their artistry, despite the new Hollywood connection. “In terms of humour, you’ve got to know what YOU find funny and what YOU would have happen in the story, and not make the film for an audience out THERE. If you remain true to yourself, then everyone else will find it true”, says Park.

Next up from Aardman is a contemporary twist on the Tortoise and the Hare fable, followed, at long last, by a Wallace and Gromit feature film, though whether a feature can be sustained, remains to be seen. “We often wondered whether we could make a whole feature film work”, says Park. “Because the shorts have worked doesn’t mean a feature will. That has been our biggest challenge is making a whole 80 minutes be enthralling and captivating.” Based on US reaction to Chicken Run thus far, that challenge has well and truly been met.