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Chicken Run Is a World War II Movie

The reason why Chicken Run is such a classic is because it's a parody of another classic, The Great Escape.

By James Grebey
Ginger (Julia Salwaha) gives two thumbs up in Chicken Run (2000).

Younger generations of moviegoers might not be familiar with Steve McQueen throwing a ball against a wall to pass the time while in solitary confinement, but chances are they’re familiar with a claymation chicken doing the same thing. Chicken Run, the poultry prison-break movie from 2000, is such a classic in part because it’s riffing on a classic movie about World War II — giving the film an extra bit of texture that sets it apart from other animated flicks that have come before or since. 

Chicken Run, which came from Aardman Animations, the studio behind the beloved Wallace & Gromit shorts, was a pastiche of the 1963 classic The Great Escape. In that film, which John Sturges directed, McQueen plays Captain Virgil Hilts, one of only three American POWs in a Nazi camp otherwise populated by captured British soldiers. Over the course of the film, McQueen helps orchestrate a daring escape attempt, eventually culminating in a thrilling action sequence where the prisoners crawl through a tunnel and scatter, and McQueen does some great motorcycle stunts. 

Chicken Run is a classic because it parodies a classic: The Great Escape

Chicken Run (2000)

It’s not too hard to see how Chicken Run riffs on this basic premise, with some changes. They’re chickens, for starters, imprisoned by a ruthless farmer named Mrs. Tweedy and her dimwitted husband, rather than inside a Nazi POW camp. McQueen’s character, Hilts, is split between Chicken Run’s two leads. Ginger (Julia Sawalha) is the one who has been trying to break out again and again, much like Hilts, and she keeps getting thrown in solitary confinement, just like Hilts. Rocky (Mel Gibson), meanwhile, is the brash American among a bunch of Brits. Our birds escape by going over the fences rather than under, and this being a children's movie, the ending is a little happier than The Great Escape’s bittersweet finale. 

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That doesn’t mean that Chicken Run is without its own darkness. The World War II aesthetic it gets from its source material does more than just give it a gray color palette that’s unlike most brighter, more colorful animated kids’ movies. Beyond Fowler (Benjamin Whitrow) talking about his days in the RAF (the film’s explicit WWII connection), it feels like there are real stakes. A chicken is killed in the opening scene. It’s hard not to make a grim mental connection to a WWII movie that involves prisoners being put into ovens. You are watching a war movie rather than just an animal romp. 

The new sequel, Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget, comes 23 years after the original. The Netflix film doesn’t have the same WWII vibe as the original. Rather than parody another movie of the genre, like The Dirty Dozen, Dawn of the Nugget has more of an early era James Bond vibe. It’s a bit more colorful and outlandish. It’s enjoyable, but there’s something missing without the WWII influence. Without The Great Escape as source material, it’s only an okay escape. 

Chicken Run is now streaming on Peacock

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