Chicken Run

If a better, funnier, smarter, more endearing film than “Chicken Run” comes along this year, I will eat a live chicken and shoot the feathers out my butt.

From the British folks who brought us the daft “Wallace & Gromit” Claymation cartoons comes this full-length adventure about a group of hens trying to escape from Tweedy Farms. The chickens who produce the fewest eggs get axed, and, to make matters worse, the Tweedys have now decided to turn ALL the chickens into chicken pies via an enormous machine, the insides of which lead to one of the film’s greatest, funniest sequences.

Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha) is their leader, a plucky (sorry) gal with a never-ending list of schemes aimed at getting the whole bunch over the fence and into freedom. They all fail (one of them involves digging with an eggbeater — just one example of the film’s mildly subversive deviltry), and for her efforts, she keeps getting tossed into solitary confinement — or “on holiday,” as the preciously dense, constantly-knitting Babs (Jane Horrocks) puts it. (“We haven’t tried NOT trying to escape,” Babs offers as a suggestion.)

Then along comes Rocky the Rooster (Mel Gibson), a cocky (sorry) American who says he can actually fly! In exchange for hiding him from the circus whence he came, he agrees to teach the ladies this skill. But he may not be everything he says he is, and the crusty old retired military rooster Fowler (Benjamin Whitrow) has his doubts, as does Ginger.

The greatness of this film is in its details. There are references to other movies and pop culture, as is the trend among animated films in this post-modern age — but they’re all subtle, typical of the dry British wit we Americans love so much. The story line is understated and deftly handled, too: When Rocky comes clean about his past and leaves the group in shame, he doesn’t do it in a tearful letter, as would be expected. Instead, he leaves behind the missing half of his circus-promotion poster — the half that tells the whole story with no sentiment or melodrama whatsoever. Beautiful.

Another great thing is that the film reminds us, occasionally, just how ridiculous it is. We know the chickens are organized. We know Ginger is their leader. We accept this, because it’s a cartoon, and things like that happen in cartoons. But when Mr. Tweedy tells his wife (Miranda Richardson), “They’re organized, I know it. Ginger, she’s their leader, I reckon,” we laugh at the stupidity of such an idea. Organized, indeed! With a leader, even! The chickens!

This is a whimsical, clever film that entertains the young ones as well as the grown-ups as much as any Disney film has ever done. With memorable characters and one great scene after another — there are swing-dancing chickens in this movie, for crying out loud! — there’s never a moment that comes across as anything less than wonderful.

A (1 hr., 35 min.; G.)