"Chicken Run" is poultry in motion that will leave most clucking with delight. 

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From its storyline's lineage rooted in "The Great Escape," to its bouncing score, to those darn claymation chickens (with teeth, no less) "Chicken Run" is guaranteed to make you smile. Technically top-notch and veddy, veddy clever in an old-fashioned, British way, this tale of a few good hens who want to escape the inevitable starts off rocky but soon hits its comic stride.

Produced by the multiple Oscar-winning "shorts" team of Nick Park and Peter Lord, this much-awaited, stop-motion big-screener has all the charm of the duo's popular PBS series "Wallace & Gromit" and then some. Although the film appears to be aimed at the elementary-school set, much of the humor — as well as the insider homages to more grown-up movies — is intended for more sophisticated audiences. As with most of this creative team's claymation shorts, there's a wry, dark edge to "Chicken Run" that balances the silliness.

In style, "Chicken Run" is a homage to those plucky British-American World War II prison-camp thrillers where the inmates devise various escape attempts before making a spectacular flight for freedom. There's one big difference, however — here, the imprisoned ones are hens. British hens, mind you, complete with knitting needles, spectacles and a healthy respect for the old pecking order. They serve out their time at Tweedy's Farm, laying eggs in dismal, stalaglike henhouses surrounded with razor wire until the time they can produce no more.

While all the mild-mannered ladies yearn for wide-open spaces, Ginger (voiced by "Ab Fab's" Julia Sawalha) and her pals in Hut 17 (yes, another famous prison-camp reference) decide to fly the coop. Ginger, who is about as plucky a bit o' poultry ever to grace the big screen, is so determined to be free that the only days she doesn't try to escape are the ones she has to spend in solitary (a garbage bin) as punishment for her failed attempts.

But everything changes when an upstart Yank literally falls into their midst. Rocky the Flying Rooster (Mel Gibson) is the reluctant star of a circus sideshow act where he is shot from a cannon. Now on the lam from his owner, he takes refuge among the ladies, never letting on that he really can't fly. Ginger begins to pin all her hopes for a mass escape on Rocky's teaching them all the tricks of getting airborne. At the same time, though, Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson) and her, ahem, henpecked hubby (Tony Haygarth) are fed up with the chicken feed they get for the eggs the ladies produce. That's when Mrs. Tweedy decides to retool the operation and begin processing pies. Meat pies. Chicken pies. Egad!

When everyone's put on double rations to plump them up quickly, Ginger becomes suspicious. She sets out to discover just what Tweedy is up to. This leads to the movie's most dramatic set piece as Ginger and Rocky end up on the conveyor belt and must scramble through the hellish machinery a la "Indiana Jones." The other great moment involves a rousing dance number. (Fans of "The Shawshank Redemption" will also be quite taken with a wonderful moment from that film as well.)

Sawalha is perfectly plucky as Ginger, and Gibson plays the self-described "lone, free-ranger" Rocky with his usual mix of boyish charm and bravado. Richardson deliciously dishes out Mrs. Tweedy's meanness in measured tones, while Benjamin Whitrow evokes that '50s war-movie feel playing an old bird who constantly recalls his glory days with the Royal Air Force.

Watching "Chicken Run," you can't help but be amazed at the myriad "human" emotions Park and Lord and their team of 40 animators are able to create with clay. In this day of computer-generated everything, Park and Lord show a lot of personal pluck by still using stop-motion animation. Let me help you put this in perspective: There are 24 frames per second of film time, so depending on the action in any given sequence of time, it is possible to have 24 separate poses to shoot per character for every second in a scene. Each pose involves the tiniest increment of movement for body, head, wings, eyes, mouth, eyebrows and whatever else directors Park and Lord want moved. Multiply that by every character in every scene — and don't forget the props — and you begin to understand why Park and Lord usually create "shorts." "Chicken Run" is a stop-motion delight that has everything a summer movies needs — a little action, a little romance, a hummable score, a clever script and characters to care about.


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