What you perhaps didn't know about animated films is that their quality depends not on the animation itself but on the writing and voicing of the characters. We may admire the look of the film, appreciate the techniques that give color and movement to the characters, and enjoy the visual jokes, but without believable characters expressing human emotions in lifelike situations, no amount of studio wizardry will bring the film to life. We can all appreciate the computer-generated simulation of reality in "Toy Story 2," but we shouldn't forget that what made the film so good was the script: its characters confront the question of whether it is better to live forever without ever feeling anything, or living once and then dying, but having an emotional life while you're at it. It was done with wit and power, and it's worth noting that even children got the point.
Now Aardman Animation, the British team of Peter Lord and Nick Park, who brought us the dark, almost morbid claymation series of Wallace and Gromit short films, have done their first feature, "Chicken Run." Thanks to the storyline and a good script by Karey Kirkpatrick -- and marvelous voicing by the characters -- it's come out as a witty, charming take on what you might call the prisons of mind and body.
Mrs. Tweedy (the voice of Miranda Richardson) and her husband run a chicken farm that's a cross between Stalag 17 and Auschwitz. Ginger (Julia Sawalha), the one chicken who can't accept her fate -- egg production until she's too old and then being eaten -- keeps trying to escape. Under the fence, past the guard dogs -- nothing works and she's put in solitary every time. She tries to organize the others, but it seems hopeless until one night a rooster comes flying like an unguided missile into the prison farm, and Ginger realizes that's the way out -- to fly!
The rooster is Rocky Rhodes, the Lone Free Ranger (Mel Gibson), a circus star who supposedly flies. Ginger gets him to agree to teach the hens how to fly, so they can all escape. But time is running short; Mrs. Tweedy wants to turn the farm into a factory for making chicken pies out of everybody, and the machinery is being put in place.
Sawalha is an inspired choice for Ginger's voice. You'll recall she was the strong but agonizingly put-upon daughter Saffron in 'Ab Fab,' who survived, among other attempted bizarreries, being sold into white slavery by her mother. She's forthright, thoughtful, sophisticated and witty here, and easily holds the center of the film against the villain Richardson and the amoral rooster Gibson. There are good supporting jobs by Jane Horrocks ('Little Voice' and Bubbles the secretary in 'Ab Fab') as sweet Babs, and Benjamin Whitrow as Fowler, the aging RAF chicken who takes after Colonel Bogey.
For 'Chicken Run' Park and Lord have designed flexible latex models for each character, and though they are still animated frame by frame the procedure is greatly simplified because the latex holds its shape over the time needed to make a feature film, where clay -- actually plasticene -- would soon lose its original structure. The trademark Aardman darkness of look and subtle palette of colors still rule here, as do the subtle wordplay and punning and double entendres of the Wallace & Gromit series. "Chicken Run" is a witty and eminently successful work -- perhaps a bit scary for children under five who are accustomed to the banalities of Disney, but just fine for the rest of us.