There's no shortage of adjectives to describe the pure pleasure of Aardman Animations' stop-motion shorts, especially Nick Park's Wallace & Gromit series, which stands as a near-perfect synthesis of wit, charm, adventure, and dazzling technique. For their long-awaited full-feature debut, Chicken Run, the Aardman team has collectively—and wisely—deferred to Park's whirligig plotting and expressive style. Sharing directing duties with Aardman co-founder Peter Lord, Park and a team of Plasticine puppeteers create a miniature world with more texture and dimensionality than conventional cel or computer animation can usually muster. But beyond the eye-popping visuals, Chicken Run offers an endlessly clever extended riff on The Great Escape, recasting the German POW camp as a Yorkshire coop and allowing plenty of room for Park's signature schemes and gizmos. Imagining Steve McQueen as one in a flock of rotund chickens with tiny legs and prominent teeth, the story begins with a hilarious montage of failed attempts by the plucky Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha) to escape Tweedy's Egg Farm. Help arrives in the form of a brash American circus rooster named Rocky (Mel Gibson), who promises to teach the timid, earthbound creatures how to fly. Their plans become more urgent when the farm's nefarious owner (Miranda Richardson) decides to boost sagging profits by running the fattened chickens through a giant pie-making machine. If Chicken Run has a flaw, it's that Park and Lord's story, however ingenious, would probably be tighter and more consistently satisfying as a 30-minute sketch than a Hollywood feature. But the level of invention on display, from the vividly detailed models and figurines to the gallery of memorable supporting characters, is astonishing at any length. With four more features in the works, it's reasonable to expect that Aardman will refine and perfect its auspicious expansion to the long form.
More from The A.V. Club