Saturday, March 15, 2014

Chicken Run


I was recently cast in a spectacular new film musical adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s timeless classic, The Jungle, which has been filming on location in Chicago. I’m not fond of location work as it takes me away from my beloved Norman but I know the importance of keeping my persona firmly in the public eye so off I went to spend some time at the Palmer House together with my costars, Louise Fletcher and Gilbert Gottfried.  I am playing the part of Bessie, the balladeer, and have two key numbers, the opening number at the Chicago Board of Trade and the Slaughterhouse Ballet from late in the film.

We’ve been working at the Board of Trade all week and it’s been an absolute nightmare shooting while they are in session, which the director insists upon in order for the number to have any artistic meaning and veracity. He claims to be inspired by the conventions of opera verismo but I think he likes working in a milieu in which he doesn't have to pay the extras.  No sooner do they focus the camera and get my key light in place when some trader comes running up yelling ‘Pork Bellies’ in my face. I’m just not used to such working conditions. I’ve also been worried about Norman. He’s been slurring his words whenever I’ve spoken to him on the phone and I had carefully double locked the liquor cabinet before catching a taxi for LAX.

I was not needed for the weekend, so the studio allowed me to catch a Southwest flight home where I returned to find Norman mixing Prestone and Nyquil in a cocktail shaker and pouring large amounts into an old mason jar. Nurse Tameka was snoring all over the divan, having obviously partaken of some previous concoction.   I had planned on our going out to a film but Norman was in no shape for a serious drama, so we repaired to the home theater and I settled on a DVD of Chicken Run as being about the right intellectual speed.

The film was a real treat. The studio may have marketed it as a children’s movie, but it was made firmly with adults in mind; the vast majority of the jokes and references are going to go right over the head of the average 10 year old. Chicken Run is the story of the hens at Tweedy’s egg farm, located somewhere in a fantasy rural England of the late forties or early fifties. The farm is a dreary, regimented place; shades of Dachau or Stalag 17 (explicitly referenced) abound. The hens are expected to produce or get the chop - literally.  One hen, Ginger, is a hen with a dream. A dream of a place where chickens can live in freedom and raise their chicks without interference – a fantasyland somewhere on the other side of the fence. Ginger schemes, together with her friends, to escape from the clutches of the evil Mrs. Tweedy, a plan that becomes more and more desperate as Mrs. Tweedy purchases an exotic contraption for turning chickens into chicken pot pies.

Ginger, the brains and soul of the laying hens (voice by Absolutely Fabulous's Saffy - Julia Swahalla), comes up with riotous foiled escape after foiled escape until she meets up with Rocky, the flying rooster (voice by Mel Gibson), late of a traveling circus. His flying abilities are just what she needs to get them all out. There are a plethora of sharply drawn chicken characters - bubble headed Babs (Jane Horrocks) constantly knitting, the bossy Bunty (Imelda Staunton), and Mac (Lynn Ferguson), a Scottish chicken with brain and attitude who can out-calculate Einstein on a good day. Add to the mix the evil Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson), her dim husband and a couple of thieving Cockney rats and you have pure cinematic pleasure

Chicken Run comes from Ardman studios and Nick Park, the slightly demented brain behind Wallace and Gromit. The careful Claymation stop-motion creates a fully realized visual world that allows for almost anything to happen. The script is full of dry British witticisms and references to every World War II prison camp film ever made. There are cheeky references to The Great EscapeThe Flight of the Phoenix, and The Bridge on the River Kwai amongst others. Many of the characters are stereotypical but it’s an affectionate lampoon rather than a lack of imagination.

Add this to your collection on the pretense of having something for the kids, but enjoy it for yourselves.

Enchanted plasticine. Chicken jokes. Bad chicken puns. Evil pie making machines. Gratuitous swing dance number. Indiana Jones parodies. Mud wrestling. Shuttlecock hat. Severed Christmas tree lights.

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