Years before he became a multi-Oscar-winning director of clay-animation short films, British native Nick Park spent two summers working at a chicken-packing factory near Preston, England. He was just out of high school and needed the wages to buy a Super-8 movie camera so he wouldn’t have to use his mom’s crummy eight-millimeter anymore. Ten hours a day, Park folded hundreds of cleaned, plucked, and headless little oven roasters onto foam trays for packing. One day, word came they were short of staff in the nearby slaughterhouse.
”It was absolutely horrible,” says Park, 42, a gentle soul who at the time had a pet chicken named Penny. ”The chickens were hung up by their feet and they’d peck at the shackles. I was put on a machine where I had to separate — I don’t know if it was livers from kidneys or something. Then I was piling up rejected chickens that were dead, and suddenly one of them started bawk bawk bawk and flapping its wings. It scared the living daylights out of me.”
Park never again pulled that wretched duty (he got his camera, too), but the vision of man’s inhumanity to chicken stuck. More than two decades later, his summer-job nightmare proved a key inspiration for one of the giddiest, cleverest sequences in Chicken Run, the first feature film from England’s Aardman Animation studios. Along with his 50-50 directing-producing partner, Peter Lord, himself an Academy Award-nominated short-film maker, Park helped cook up an elaborate scene of mechanized meat-packing menace for the story’s leading birds, Rocky the glad-handing Yankee rooster (voiced by Mel Gibson) and sensible hen Ginger (Julia Sawalha, best known as sensible Saffy on Absolutely Fabulous). In a feat of swashbuckling aplomb straight out of Star Wars, the plucky pair have to escape the insides of an insidious pie-making machine installed by a greedy farmer’s wife, Malisha Tweedy (Sleepy Hollow’s Miranda Richardson), who hopes to turn her fowl — confined, POW-style, behind barbed wire — from ragtag egg layers into profit-making supermarket fodder.
And speaking of making big bucks, that’s exactly what Aardman’s U.S.-territories partner, DreamWorks SKG, hopes to do with this clay-animated spoof of, among other live-action gulag flicks, The Great Escape. Just as Disney provided marketing muscle and script guidance to Pixar on Toy Story, the first computer-animated feature, made back in 1995, SKG is handling the distribution and toy tie-ins for Aardman on Chicken, as well as contributing to its development. Marketing downside: The subject matter made fast-food tie-ins tricky (though Burger King took the bait). Marketing upside: excellent timing. DreamWorks opens the $42 million picture, a bargain by ‘toon standards, in late June, traditionally Disney’s highly lucrative summer animation slot.
Clearly, DreamWorks co-chief Jeffrey Katzenberg hopes that Chicken will peck away at Disney’s animation dominance, a prospect Disney honcho Michael Eisner is no doubt pained to contemplate; Katzenberg had tried hard to land Park and Lord as partners when he was still running Disney’s animation branch. But the British animators, fiercely determined to remain independent, resisted the Mouse. ”I imagine we’d have made a perfectly good film [with Disney],” says Lord, who cofounded Bristol-based Aardman in 1972. ”But Aardman as an institution would have disappeared, I’m sure, in the process.”