You would have to be seriously unplugged from the culture not to have encountered, sometime in the past decade or two, the clay animations of co-directorsproducers Nick Park and Peter Lord. Their creations tend to have lively, rapidly blinking eyes, chattery teeth and exquisitely chosen voices; their shorts tend to win Oscars. Their most famous offspring are Wallace and Gromit, but my favorite is the melancholy Jaguar in Creature Comforts, who complains about zoo-bound life in a thick Brazilian accent, saying again and again: “I need espace.” One would think, given their wide popularity (which even makes a guilty pleasure out of the Chevron commercials they animate), that Park and Lord would by now be well-established in feature films. Instead they‘ve elected to be choosy, and the result, which they’ve co-directed, is Chicken Run, a delirious fable about every creature‘s need for espace.
The place is an egg farm in rural Britannia. We swoop in via crane shot, floating across the barbwire in wicked mimicry of the first shot in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17. In fact, Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha), our heroine, lives in Henhouse 17. Like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, she‘s determined to break out of this prison. And like McQueen, she is repeatedly caught and thrown into solitary confinement, where she bounces a rubber ball against the cement walls in a spirit of stubborn protest. When their owners, the Tweedys (Miranda Richardson and Tony Haygarth), grow ambitious and decide to open a “chicken pie” factory, the hens realize their doom is imminent. A big, nightmarish oven is installed in the barn. Ginger asks the heavens for a miracle, and is sent Rocky (Mel Gibson), a boastful American rooster that’s escaped the local circus and claims to be able to fly.
The first surprise of Chicken Run, given its high-energy premise, is that it‘s not a laugh a minute. Neither Park nor Lord bow to the pressure of television, so to speak. They’re out to involve us emotionally first, and the film‘s second surprise is that this proves to be a winning strategy — the laughs are weirder but deeper. Like the zoo in Creature Comforts, the farm and its barbwire become a scarily funny (and because funny, never pretentious) distillate of the human condition. As children we are born into captivity, after all; we show up naked, illiterate and broke. The great dreams of life often boil down to either love or freedom. Park and Lord’s Lilliput of plump pluckers embodies our yearnings for both. One of the best laughs in the film is the one that grows out of the hens‘ reaction to Rocky. We hear Mel Gibson, but they SEE Mel Gibson, and go wonderfully gooey, en masse.
There’s a ride through the ghastly oven that rivals the most dazzling action in the Indiana Jones movies. The name “Rocky” plays on Stallone movies and flying squirrels with equal ease; in addition to the prison-movie riffs there are Star Trek gags and who knows what all. But time and again, the animation is energized by the voices; it‘s how the characters sound that gives their endearing physiognomies such comic might. You can hear them in your head for days afterward, and smile. The batty, death-denying little hen voiced by Jane Horrocks is especially delightful, and Richardson’s Mrs. Tweedy channels a plummy mixture of Tallulah Bankhead and your meanest grade school teacher.
What gives this movie its oddly strong grip on a viewer‘s heart is a physical tenderness inseparable from the nature of claymation. There’s no digital trickery here. We‘re looking at clay figurines whose positions have been changed by microscopic increments, frame by frame, with breathtaking precision. The rate of production, according to one account, was 10 seconds per day. (How they ever pulled off that big dance number in the chicken coop is staggering to contemplate.) The value of such handiwork is subtle but definite, an emotional expressiveness in the faces and bodies that can only be sculpted, not thought through with a computer. So little is handmade in this world anymore. The beauty of an entertainment like Chicken Run is that it recovers human feeling through self-evident hard work, yet the enjoyment is effortless.
A sense of “handmade” art, in the finest sense, also applies to the best films made outside the digital domains of the United States. The Universal Studios Hitchcock International Directors Series running this week at the American Cinematheque gives strong proof of this, much as the title makes it sound like yet another centennial tribute to the Master of Suspense. The series unveils a dynamic lineup of films from a variety of countries. One is surreal, another hyperreal, another lyrical-historical and still another is a contemporary variant on the Italian neorealism of the 1940s and ’50s. And of these four, only the much-praised Lamerica, from Italy‘s Gianni Amelio, has found wider distribution in this country.
This is a tragedy, and Universal is right to make the effort, because all four of these films are exceptional. To be robbed of them is to lose the world. Miguel Littin’s Chilean Tierra del Fuego recounts the life of a dashing 19th-century adventurer who managed to purchase, for a time, the southernmost land mass in the Americas but was afflicted with warring ambitions: the freedom of humankind and his own glory. The harsh, quick-stitching texture of Ann Hui‘s Summer Snow is so intense that at first the Hong Kong film feels dreamlike in nature, but what’s being conveyed is a hypersensitive awareness on the part of a middle-aged woman whose most significant relationship is with her aging tyrant of a father-in-law.
The governing principle in these films is that they are director-driven. There are no big parts for stars, no genuflections to genre, no cars going through plate-glass windows, no folks in long coats haunting technoir cityscapes. Life is what is being observed and expressed here, and the filmmakers are true above all to what their imaginations have organically produced in the act of living. Otar Iosseliani‘s surrealist Farewell, Home Sweet Home is gratifying in this regard. The first scene focuses on a stoic little girl determined to entertain herself in a quiet alcove while her mother throws a loud party in the next room. She plays with blocks on the floor, but a maidservant tells her to sit in a chair and draw. The instant she grows comfortable in this, her mother bursts in and scolds her for not sitting in a ladylike way. Thus chased from her chair, the girl plucks a pretty knickknack from the windowsill, only to be scolded again: “That’s not a toy.”
Every lonely, misunderstood moment of every childhood in the universe feels distilled into these few minutes of screen time — and for a second we may fall into the playful trap of assuming this little girl is going to be our heroine, and that we‘re in a sharply lit corner of Truffaut-land. That’s about when the stork walks in. There‘s no narrative explanation for this creature. The mean mother fawns over him as if he’s a visiting dignitary; Iosseliani‘s camera eye dotes on him for what he is, a comedic marvel, a high-stepping, shy representative of the higher courts of insanity making the laws in this universe. When we leave the girl behind, what follows is a merry-go-round of involvements worthy of either Max Ophuls or Rube Goldberg. Everything connects. We follow the girl’s brother, some bullies he fights, a waitress he‘s in love with and the lying heel on a motorbike with whom she is happily-unhappily in love — as well as an old man who plays with toy trains (played by the Georgian director himself). We don’t return to the girl until the film has come full circle; we seem to be in a world of Buñuelian lawlessness, freed from the weight of Buñuel‘s rage. Iosseliani is never blind to life’s agonies, but in response he‘s fashioned a sweet hymn to nonsense.