Wednesday, June 28, 2000

A stunning joyride

Posted By on Wed, Jun 28, 2000 at 12:00 AM

Although the target audience for most animation is children, this doesn’t mean the art form can’t contain material sophisticated enough to attract adults. The contemporary hybrid model is "The Simpsons," which can be enjoyed purely for its colorful characters and silly spectacle, but is also packed with so many clever allusions that it offers a distinct pleasure for adult viewers.

On one hand, Chicken Run is a lively romp full of nutty birds. This wonderful visual treat is done in stop-action clay animation, a form which is both substantial and magical. It’s as if the clay figures kids make have managed to take on a life of their own.

But directors Peter Lord, co-founder of the innovative Aardman Studios, and Nick Park, creator of the sublime Wallace and Gromit shorts, bring a marvelously twisted sensibility to this fowl tale. Never content to rely solely on their distinctive clay (technically, plasticine) creations or the incredibly intricate contraptions characters must conquer, they’ve cooked up a story spoofing World War II prisoner-of-war films such as The Great Escape and Stalag 17.

It’s an odd juxtaposition that works incredibly well. The chickens are prisoners with an interminable sentence, lined up military style so the evil commandant, Mrs. Tweedy (voice of Miranda Richardson), can tally their egg count and turn underperformers into dinner. Her hapless husband (Tony Haygarth) suspects – but can’t prove – that these supposedly stupid creatures are hatching a plot to escape. But he’s an effective jailer, regularly fouling up the plans of the rebellious Ginger (Julia Sawalha).

Although this clever bird could have flown the coop numerous times, she’s very civic-minded. Ginger doesn’t just want to flee – she wants to make a new life for everyone, including the blissfully naive Babs (Jane Horrocks), the matronly hen Bunty (Imelda Staunton) and the pompous old rooster Fowler (Benjamin Whitrow), who’s peeved that a cocky American, Rocky (Mel Gibson), arrives to disrupt the well-established pecking order.

Chicken Run is very, very British, and not just in the accents. There’s a distinct comic sensibility at work which is grounded in reality, yet quite surreal – which makes it strangely logical that these flightless birds base an escape plan on taking wing.

In a very different way, Titan A.E. is also about flight. This traditional science-fiction tale starts with the destruction of Earth in 3028 by the Drej, an alien race determined to wipe out all humans. A few vessels manage to flee the attack, including the one holding a very young Cale, who watches the massive ship carrying his scientist father, the Titan, narrowly escape.

Even after he’s grown into a young man, Cale (Matt Damon), harbors deep-seated feelings of abandonment. Working in a remote, seedy salvage yard surrounded by other species, he’s come to believe that humans are an inferior life form doomed to extinction and oblivion. Then he meets two vibrant representatives of the human diaspora who have come to recruit Cale on a mission to locate the Titan, a vessel which is shrouded in mystery but allegedly contains the key to saving the human race.

Korso (Bill Pullman) is a ship captain-rogue in the mold of Han Solo who nonetheless espouses an idealistic rhetoric, and Akima (Drew Barrymore), a comely but tough and capable pilot, grew up on a refugee colony and treasures anything that connects her to Earth.

This adventure seems to have been made for 14-year-old boys, with all the advantages and pitfalls that engenders. Titan A.E. often feels like a joyride, with bursts of exuberant energy as the characters head fearlessly into the unknown. But the blaring songs that underscore these thrills sound like bad ’80s metal, the kind made by bands with more hair than talent.

Directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman (An American Tale, Anastasia) have taken on a drastically different visual style than their previous films, and the result is stunning. The Drej, creatures made of pure energy, are all glowing blue sinews, while other creatures are marvelously rendered, particularly the kangarooish Stith, the tortoiselike Gune and hyenaesque Preed (the film’s best voices, the barely recognizable Janeane Garofalo, John Leguizamo and Nathan Lane).

The backgrounds are particularly magnificent, with fiery skies and huge ice crystals breaking the black monotony of a typically rendered outer space. But the big problem is the humans. They are stiff, clunky and out of sync, and it’s amazing that in a film which is about the importance of humankind that people come off as so very bland and lifeless.

Whether animation succeeds in the big picture depends on how well the creators have paid attention to the details. Both Chicken Run and Titan A.E. meet that criteria. They not only take off, but soar.

Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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