When I was a kid, the scariest place to be was the movie theater. Pretty ironic to think about now, but from the perspective of a small child, the movie theater was an absolute nightmare land. The images were towering, the sound was ungodly, the darkness entirely enveloping. So, when I was only six years old and was taken to see Chicken Run in theaters not once, but twice, that was a big deal.
But like many, I’d grown up introduced to the claymation capers of Aardman Animation. Most specifically, the delightful short tales of the cheese-loving human and anthropomorphic dog pals Wallace & Gromit, as they cavorted through sticky situations including but not limited to, a pair of uncontrollable robot pants and an evil penguin with a red rubber glove on his head. Seeing Chicken Run, at the time, was an absolute given. It was comfortable to watch something I was already familiar with.
Of course, now, at age 24, I know that there is more to Chicken Run than comfort. Much more than a pair of goofy friends finding themselves in endless-yet-endearing-trouble, Chicken Run is leagues away from the benign comedy stylings of Wallace & Gromit. It really has something to say, something that lures our young minds in with the promise of googly-eyed farm fowl speaking in charming British dialects and then hurls us back into the world with new ideas festering in our minds about the evils of capitalism and labor exploitation.
Among the egg and poultry puns is a film about the power of organized resistance, where the strength is solely in the hands of women who must not only overcome their captors and quite literally seize the means of production but overcome the general uselessness of the men around them. A loose parody of the 1963 World War II epic The Great Escape, about a group of Allied soldiers escaping a German POW camp, Peter Lord and Nick Park‘s 2000 animated feature follows plucky hen heroine Ginger. Determined and daring, she continuously leads the rest of her coop on failed missions to escape their farm.
Then the “flying rooster” Rocky Rhodes lands in their midst and convinces them they can learn to fly, joining the rest of the chickens in the captivity of the respectively dull and conniving Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy. The Tweedys run their farm only caring about one thing, and that’s profit. As long as the chickens are producing goods for them that they can exploit for financial gain, the chickens are kept alive on the farm. As soon as their labor can’t be used for profit, they are sent to the chopping block.
The Tweedys’ farm and their chickens mirror the oft-maligned working environments and practices of our modern-day capitalist society. We’re only valuable to our bosses as long as we can provide them with labor and, therefore, profit. As soon as we aren’t profitable, we’re disposable and replaceable. Thus, this idea of Marxist theory inherent within Chicken Run – the objective of Marxism being the self-emancipation of the working class, i.e. the chickens. German philosopher Karl Marx believed in a socialist revolution in order to bring about control of political power for the proletariat (a fancy word for the working class). This “dictatorship of the proletariat,” as he called it, would give the proletariat public ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange.
The chickens of Chicken Run could even be considered more like prison labor, as their work is entirely unpaid and entirely for-profit. Deviance and attempts to escape, when caught, are punished by solitary confinement. Eventually, however, the deaths of the chickens are considered ever more profitable for the Tweedys than their lives, as the couple embarks on a new business venture in the creation and selling of chicken pot pies. Now, it no longer matters if a chicken can’t produce the necessary labor for the Tweedys: now, their bodies are profitable.
Part of Marxist theory also includes this idea of “seizing the means of production,” means of production being what is used to produce goods, and seizing them as in taking control and using them for the greater good instead of personal gain (as with capitalism). Thus, the chickens’ entire bodies are the Tweedys’ means of producing goods, as well as being the goods themselves. In the end, the chickens’ ultimate way of escape relies entirely on their bodies: hand-powering a plane they built all by themselves. They take their bodies, once only objects of profit, and use them to free and benefit their entire community from the Tweedys’ capitalist control.
But there is even more to the film than indoctrinating in young minds ideas about Marxism and the evils of capitalism. Its entree of themes includes, but is not limited to: death, injustice, exploitation, suppression, resistance, rebellion, the pursuit of freedom, free thought, and, of course, greed. It’s all incredibly dense for a stop-motion animated movie about chickens. (One could even view Rocky as a metaphor for the false promises of The American Dream – but I won’t try getting into that.) The film is packed full of feminist power too, not simply the fact that an entire revolution is organized by women but the stereotypical “woman’s work” of these female chickens (such as their sewing and knitting) is crucial in constructing their mechanism for escape and vital towards the revolution itself.
The men of Chicken Run, on the other hand, are not as favorable. Whether they’re scheming (slippery salesmen rats Nick and Fetcher), deceitful (Fowler and Rocky), or just kinda dumb (Mr. Tweedy), for most of the film, men hinder the women’s progress. Ginger’s persistence, steadfastness, and concern for her coop are perceived by Rocky as “difficult.” But it’s the women of the film – both the chickens and Mrs. Tweedy – who are the ones who know how to get anything done.
I can still feel the sorrow that sank like a lead weight in my stomach when I first experienced one of the film’s very first scenes. Due to her consistent lack of egg production, a poor chicken named Edwina is sent to her death as her feathered friends bear witness in abject horror and dismay. For a G-rated film, it’s an incredibly distressing scene. It deeply upset me as a child, and it upset me as I watched it for probably the 20th time nearly 20 years later. It instilled in me not simply a sadness towards a sympathetic animal character but a desire to see justice done for an exploited and vulnerable class — even if, perhaps, I did not quite realize it at six-years-old.
Chicken Run embodies the very definition of a radical kids’ movie, and if it didn’t make you want to overthrow the powers that be before all your baby teeth fell out, then at the very least, you came away thinking that maybe, just maybe, chickens can fly.