REVIEW: Chicken Run

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2000:

Chicken Run
Animated feature co-directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park,
starring the voices of Mel Gibson, Julia Sawahla, and
Miranda Richardson. Aardman Studios, 2000. 80 minutes.

Burlesquing the World War II prisoner-of-war camp
films Stalag 17 (1953) and The Great Escape (1963), Chicken
Run features the laying hen Ginger as the indomitable prisoner
who is repeatedly hunted with dogs and thrown into solitary
confinement in a coal bin, yet continues her escape attempts.
Time and again Ginger sacrifices her own chance at
freedom to help less comprehending, less ambitious, and less
agile chickens escape with her. Each time she is roughly
returned to Coop 17 and dawn inspections at which unproductive
hens are singled out for the pot, as examples to the rest.
The TV comedy series Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1968)
parodied The Great Escape and Stalag 17 just for laughs.
Chicken Run is far funnier, to serious purpose.

There is no Sergeant Schultz. Instead, the stooge is
Mr. Tweedy, who as a younger man might have been Horace,
the dimwitted dog thief depicted in the 1959 Walt Disney
Studios animated edition of 101 Dalmatians.
The Kommandant is Mrs. Tweedy. Goose-stepping
in rubber barn boots rather than jackboots, she might be
Cruella DeVil’s disavowed mother, if one imagines (slightly
altering the story line) that Cruella’s obsession with fur and
other trappings of ill-gained wealth originates from an inferiority
complex associated with working class origins, and that
Cruella married into the DeVil fortune rather than inheriting it.
Borrowing inspiration from countless previous cartoon
classics as well as the prisoner-of-war dramas, C h i c k e n
R u n invites the audience to recognize that even as the free
world fought the Nazis, modern industrialized agriculture had
already begun to reduce farm animals to a concentration camplike
existence. Laugh by laugh, viewers are drawn into empathy
with the chickens who must eventually face Mrs. Tweedy’s
decision to implement a Final Solution culminating with an
oven which will bake them into meat pies.
Jews, gypsies, et al who were processed through
Auschwitz were in fact killed and turned into commodities
much as slaughterhouses kill and dismember poultry, pigs,
and cattle. That humans were so treated has horrified the world
since 1945, when the Nazi killing machine was first exposed.
That animals are so treated, and suffer similarly,
should be no secret. Animal rights activists have been exposing
the practices of factory farming and slaughter, and making the
obvious comparisons, since the late Ruth Harrison published
Animal Factories in 1964.
But––like the townspeople who ignored the smoke
and smell of the Nazi cremation ovens––the public chooses to
practice denial about the lives and deaths of farm animals
because the matter is too horrible to think about. Chicken Run
may achieve a psychological breakthrough, as the first successful
product of popular culture to begin to bring the truth of factory
farming home to the public in a palatable manner.
Certainly Chick-en Run is the first expression of popular
culture to advocate for chickens, unless one counts
Foghorn Leghorn, who in barnyard cartoon shorts made 40 to
50 years ago sometimes had to escape the hatchet, but never
looked out for anyone but himself.
Pigs by contrast have been the subject of five popular
anti-slaughter stories, including the book and animated cartoon
Charlotte’s Web (1952, 1973), the feature film Gordy (1995),
and the two B a b e feature films (1995, 1998). Among them,
however, they rarely so much as show a factory farm in passing.
Charlotte’s Web and the Babe films depict a form of oneat-a-time
hog-rearing which was almost history when E.B.
White wrote the book Charlotte’s Web, and is by now so long
gone that Farmer Hoggett of the Babe series must be explained
as an economically struggling anachronism.
Chicken Run too might be accused of flinching away
from modern reality. Clearly set early in the post-World War II
era, Chicken Run shows an early part of the transition from traditional
barnyard hen-rearing to modern factory farming.
Implausible as many aspects of the Chicken Run escape fantasy
are, none of the story could take place in the same manner
now, when hens like Ginger never even get out of a cage. The
concentration camp reality, meanwhile, has only intensified
with the advent of “forced molting,” a euphemism for starving
unproductive laying hens for two weeks, simulating the effect
of winter, so that when the hens are fed again, they respond as
if to the coming of spring and produce eggs again.
But, like Hogan’s Heroes, Chicken Run could not
have gone mainstream if it showed the full horror of the prison
motif. The British vegetarian activist group Viva! learned as
much when it tried to air a 20-second spot showing an actual
laying hen in a battery cage at London screenings of Chicken
Run. Video of an actual laying hen––one among millions, suffering
neither more nor less than any other––was killed at the
storyboard phase, Juliet Gellatley of Viva! told A N I M A L
P E O P L E, when the British Cinema Advertising Association
ruled that it might scare small children.
Chicken Run appeared concurrent with drives to abolish
battery caging in the European Union and Australia, and
with efforts to extend the limited protections of the U.S.
Animal Wel-fare Act to birds, rats, and mice used in research.
It may give those campaigns a boost, and is certainly raising
media notice of poultry welfare.
For example, offered BBC News in a July 21 report
by environment correspondent Alex Kirby, “A report obtained
by the BBC suggests that health and welfare problems in the
U.K. poultry industry may be far more severe than the government
admits. An independent survey of welfare in Denmark’s
broiler industry found that 30% of the birds suffered severe leg
problems in the final stages of their lives. Yet a survey of the
U.K. industry, commissioned by the industry itself, found
under 2% of birds with similar problems.”
Quoting sources who contradict the British government
claim, Kirby ended by stating that, “Some regard the
rearing of broiler chickens as the worst animal welfare problem
in U.K. agriculture.”
Butcher David Lidgate told Alex O’Connell of the
London Times that he thought Chicken Run might influence
viewers to “eat less chicken and more beef,” despite ongoing
concern in Britain about the evolution of the “mad cow disease”
into new-variant Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease, a terminal
human brain disorder.
In the U.S., Burger King counted on such a response,
with “Save a chicken, eat a Whopper” ads.
“Burger King also hired people to wear chicken suits
and stage mock protests at some of its restaurants,” reported
Associated Press entertainment writer David Germain.
Only time will tell whether Chicken Run has an
enduring effect. But it bears notice that the children who
viewed Dumbo, Bambi, 101 Dalmatians, Charlotte’s Web,
The Fox and the Hound, and A Country Coyote Goes
Hollywood a generation and more ago grew up to put circuses,
hunting, fur, meat-eating, and predator-killing under the
ongoing scrutiny of the animal rights movement, building pressure
toward their abolition.


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