Animated feature film co-directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park, starring the voices of Mel Gibson, Julia Sawahla, and Miranda Richardson.
Produced by Aardman Studios, distributed by Dreamworks, 2000.
Sequel, Dawn of the Nugget, coming to Netflix on December 15, 2023.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
An appreciation of the late United Poultry Concerns founder Karen Davis, posted by Chicken Run Sanctuary founder Mary Britton Clouse, and the memories Beth and I have of Karen Davis herself, a frequent ANIMALS 24-7 guest columnist who died on November 4, 2023, inspired the ANIMALS 24-7 team to re-watch the 2000 claymation animated film classic Chicken Run.
And just in time. Those who missed Chicken Run on first theatrical release in 2000, including an entire generation of animal advocates who were not even born then, will want to see the original before the sequel, Dawn of the Nugget, five years in production, comes to Netflix for home viewing on December 15, 2023.
Beth & I will be watching.
Chicken Run the original, burlesquing the World War II prisoner-of-war camp films Stalag 17 (1953) and The Great Escape (1963), features the egg-laying hen Ginger as the indomitable prisoner who is repeatedly hunted by a pair of slavering pit bulls and thrown into solitary confinement in a coal bin, yet continues her escape attempts.
Funnier, to serious purpose
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, and reprised, never as memorably, in sequels and live-action remakes.
Cruella DeVil’s disavowed mother
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 earlier cartoon classics, as well as the prisoner-of-war dramas, Chicken Run 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 camp-like 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 mistreated has horrified much of the world, Hamas sympathizers excepted, since 1945, when the Nazi killing machine was first exposed.
That animals are so mistreated, 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, ever since the late Ruth Harrison published Animal Machines in 1964.
But, like the townspeople who ignored the smoke and smell of the Nazi cremation ovens, most of the public chooses to practice denial about the lives and deaths of farmed animals because the matter is too horrible to think about.
Descendants of Foghorn Leghorn?
Reviewing Chicken Run upon first release in 2000, I hypothesized that it might 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.
Perhaps it did, to an extent, since plant-based alternatives to eggs and chicken meat are now readily available in almost every grocery store. The poultry industry as it existed in 2000 is hardly staggering toward collapse, but the economic growth curve it rode then has at least slowed somewhat.
Certainly Chicken Run was the first expression of popular culture to advocate for chickens, unless one counts Foghorn Leghorn, created by Robert McKimson, who starred in 29 barnyard cartoon shorts made between 1946 and 1964.
Foghorn Leghorn sometimes had to escape the hatchet, but never looked out for anyone but himself.
Pigs by contrast have been the subject of at least five popular anti-slaughter stories, including the book and animated cartoon Charlotte’s Web (1952, 1973), the feature film Gordy (1995), and the two Babe 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 one-at-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 in the films as an economically struggling anachronism.
Chicken Run too might be accused of flinching away from modern reality. Clearly set in the immediate 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, including that the talking hens all have teeth, none of the story could take place in the same manner now, when hens like Ginger never even get out of a cage.
No real hens allowed
The concentration camp reality, meanwhile, only intensified over the decades between then and now, especially 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.
Like Hogan’s Heroes, however, Chicken Run could not have gone mainstream if it showed the full horror of the Nazi concentration camp 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, Viva! founder Juliet Gellatley told ANIMALS 24-7, when the British Cinema Advertising Association ruled that it might scare small children.
What did Chicken Run accomplish?
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 Welfare Act to birds, rats, and mice used in research.
Chicken Run may have given those campaigns a boost, and transiently raised media notice of poultry welfare, giving Karen Davis opportunities to amplify the United Poultry Concerns message, but 23 years later, many millions of egg-laying chickens remain in battery cages or slightly larger cages that are not much better.
And the U.S. Animal Welfare Act still does not recognize that birds, rats, and mice are sentient, suffering animals, albeit with one relatively small exception extended to some birds: see USDA proposes to cover birds under the Animal Welfare Act––sort of.
That Chicken Run had some enduring effect is self-evident in that a sequel, Dawn of the Nugget, is soon to be released. Without enduring popularity sufficient to promise a welcoming audience, investors would not have put up the money to produce the sequel.
Generations of animal advocacy
The poultry industry, meanwhile, may shudder at the realization that the children who viewed Dumbo, Bambi, 101 Dalmatians, Charlotte’s Web, The Fox & the Hound, and A Country Coyote Goes Hollywood several generations 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.
Many children who grew up watching the original Chicken Run are now parents whose own children eat the plant-based alternatives to eggs and chicken meat.
Those children’s children, who will be watching Dawn of the Nugget, may––if it lives up to to the promise of Chicken Run––may at last see Colonel Sanders et al in bankruptcy court.