An underrated masterpiece of Marxist cinema
Release Date: June 23, 2000
Director: Peter Lord, Nick Park
Who should see this movie: NOT CHILDREN. I repeat, this movie is not for children. This movie is only for people old enough for class consciousness.
When should you watch this movie: At a meeting with your fellow revolutionaries.
The sell: *Spoilers ahead*Chicken Run is straight up scary. The chicken’s are animated with huge beady eyes and full sets of teeth. Yet, as alarming as Chicken Run is, I argue that it has been the victim of poor framing, responsible (at least in part) for its under-appreciation. In short, Chicken Run has long been mischaracterized as an ill-imagined children’s movie, when in fact it belongs in the canon of Marxist cinema, alongside works such as Vienet’s “Can dialectics break bricks?” and Godard’s “Pierrot le fou.” It would be wrong to officially call Chicken Run a work of “Marxist Film,” as its construction lands solidly in traditional Western practice – There is an obvious protagonist and no fourth wall is broken through intentional editing (though one could argue that the sheer absurdity of it’s animation is enough to prevent audiences from suspending disbelief). However, Chicken Run may still trace its lineage back to Einstein in its remarkable dedication to revolutionary themes. The Chicken Run story is undoubtedly about rising class consciousness and the critical role of solidarity in escaping the oppressive confines of capitalism.
The story opens on a World War II POW camp-esque complex, complete with barbed wire fencing and watchdogs. In the camp, chickens are housed in barracks and forced to produce eggs. The audience is introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy, the human bosses and orchestrators of this dystopian scene. It quickly becomes clear that the chickens live in fear of these humans (Mrs. Tweedy in particular) as their eggs are collected daily until the day they can no longer produce. On that day they are swiftly removed from the barracks, decapitated and made into dinner. The setting alone is a thinly veiled metaphor for the alienation of labor under capitalism. Conditions are poor, and – with their lives at stake – workers have no choice but to keep producing. The workers’ value is thus inescapably linked to their ability to keep laboring, meanwhile unable to enjoy any fruits of this labor. When they are no longer of value, they are discarded. *There is an additional feminist reading here, in that the chickens’ (almost all hens) work is intrinsicly tied to their bodies, specifically their ability to reproduce. Thus not only does capitalism deprive them of the product of their labor but it also deprives them of their bodily autonomy. *
We are introduced to the main protagonist, Ginger, through her ambitious solo efforts at escape. Fed-up with her circumstances, Ginger has devised several – failed – attempts to flee the compound. Caught again, for what appears to be the umpteenth time, Ginger is told by her comrades to give up. This moment is a poignant nod to the internalized ideologies of capitalism that makes workers complicit in their own exploitation.
The chickens are shaken up when one day, a Rooster flies into the compound. Impressed by the miraculous rooster, Rocky’s, apparent flying ability, Ginger is inspired to leverage Rocky’s expertise in devising a new escape plan. Unable to demonstrate himself due to a broken wing Rocky begins to teach the hens how to fly. Rocky represents the promise of a savior, as the hens have an almost religious belief in his ability to free them. His charismatic authority is as Marxists believe religion to be: simply a distraction for the masses; a diversion, not a solution. The arrival of Rocky coincides with a dark turn in the fate of the chickens, as Mrs. Tweedy, discontent with the rate of production and her own meager payoff, has decided to convert the egg farm into a fully mechanized chicken-pot-pie factory. Of course, never satisfied, greed driven capitalists endlessly pursue greater and greater wealth, with no regard for its effect on workers.
Needless to say, flying lessons are yet another failed attempt at escape. Filled with guilt, Rocky abandons the chickens in their time of need and Ginger discovers that he was never actually able to fly. In truth he was shot out of a canon. Heartbroken and disillusioned, Ginger seems almost ready to give-up when an off-hand comment from a compound elder (a rooster named Fowly who claims to have flown with the RAF), inspires an entirely new plan. Ginger addresses the community of chickens in a rousing speech, affirming their worth and their collective power. Working together for the first time as a team, the compound of chickens build a fully-functioning airplane, complete with runway and ramp.
Of course, in classic Hollywood form, the movie’s final minutes consist of an epic fight scene, high stakes, an almost death, triumph, and a happy ending complete with a kiss. The closing scene shows the chickens living peacefully in a cooperative, communal society. The ending is so classically traditional, an average audience could easily celebrate the victory without realizing exactly what had been overcome. Through class consciousness, solidarity, and collective effort, the chickens were able to escape the oppressive confines of a capitalist system, finding peace in a communist future.
The fact that Chicken Run gets away with a PG rating is astonishing, and quite honestly troubling.