Toy story

The creators of Chicken Run find soul in a lump of clay

"And," Park adds, "I think it would have been doing an injustice to kids to sanitize the world too much."

Most animated films of late are empty vessels, show-off showcases for animators enamored of computer-generated technology to the point that they render storytelling secondary--or, as Lord says with a sly grin, "thirdary or fourthary." Movies such as DreamWorks' own The Road to El Dorado, which proved a dismal failure at the box office, or Don Bluth's just-released Titan A.E. may look extraordinary on their burnished surfaces, but they contain nothing beneath. They're hollow products, slick commercials for their fast-food-chain tie-ins and toy-store merchandise. It's as though the medium so dazzles the filmmakers, they forget to write a script. The characters might as well speak in gibberish, so irrelevant have they become to the process.

Yet when an animated film does come along that's both thoughtful and beautiful, it's practically ignored (discounting, of course, the Toy Story series and A Bug's Life). Last year's The Iron Giant, about a lonely boy and his adopted alien robot, was one of 1999's best films, but it was a movie to which parents took their children, not the other way around, and grown-ups tend to treat animation like something best left to Saturday mornings. The Iron Giant fared poorly at the box office--Warner Bros.' failure to merchandise it was a welcome relief and, ultimately, the movie's undoing--but it likely will be one of those films we marvel at decades from now, precisely because the animation never gets in the way of a good story or two-dimensional characters who feel so very 3D. It was a cartoon populated by flesh-and-blood (and steel) immortals.

The meat of it: Nick Park (left, holding a model of Rocky the Rooster) and Peter Lord begin work on Chicken Run.
The meat of it: Nick Park (left, holding a model of Rocky the Rooster) and Peter Lord begin work on Chicken Run.

Chicken Run may well be animated, but it, too, is warmer to the touch than any film released so far this year; it is the most human movie in theaters this summer. Park and Lord insist they would be sorely disappointed if audiences left the theater dazzled only by the technique. Indeed, they'd consider themselves failures if that were to happen.

"The last thing we wanted to do was make a film where people come out impressed by the animation, by the fact this is done in clay, and don't come out thinking, 'What a great story' and that it has some kind of resonance for them as well," Park says. "There is the content there. It's not about chickens' liberation"--he chuckles--"and it's not about vegetarianism, particularly, although there is something of that. We do have a handle on that. It is tied to the reality of mass exploitation. There is that kind of moral in the story, but we didn't want to explain it in the story. We wanted to give you something to chew over. That's one thing animated films don't often do. They want to tell you the moral and then tell you what it means and tell you what relevance it's supposed to have."

If these characters do indeed have a soul, as Park likes to say, it's one borrowed from their creators and their animators. It's found in the indentations left behind by the crew of puppeteers and animators who touch the character thousands of times a day; their hand prints rub off and remain, like a small stain that can never be removed. In Park's short films, characters need not even say a word to make an impression. Gromit, Wallace's dog and best friend, is completely mute, but this lump of plasticine has his own personality. He speaks with furrowed brows, with wide eyes, with a shrugging body.

In Chicken Run, Ginger--the chicken obsessed with leading her sisters out of the farm and over the hill, to green grass and blue skies--wears a forlorn look on her expressive face. Her silences are as important as her speeches; even a deaf child could sense her sadness, no doubt a remnant of Lord's earliest work in animation. He believed then, and he believes now, that these lumps of clay are very much alive--his and Park's children, hatched and nurtured for four-plus years and only now being sent out into the world.

"I know that people will look at the technique with part of their brains and come away going, 'That was really cool,'" Lord says. "And I'm sounding a bit evangelical here, but the technique is also important to both of us. This is a hand-made look. Watching the big screen, you're sometimes aware that these characters have fingerprints on them. We haven't totally tried to disguise that. And when you look at the screen, you see sculpting, carving, painting--you see craftsmanship. I fundamentally believe that a piece of handmade furniture or a piece of music played on acoustic instruments is better than something copied and replicated by machines or electronically."

Shortly, the two will begin work on another feature for DreamWorks: an adaptation of Aesop's fable The Tortoise and the Hare. Parks hopes to follow that with a Wallace & Gromit feature. The question, though, is whether the two men are ready to spend another four-plus years making a single film--whether they're ready to go through the birthing process one more grueling time.

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