Eyes, popularly, are considered windows to the soul. But in the anatomy book of genius-tinged animator Nick Park and his cohorts at Aardman, teeth really tell the story. Beginning with the Academy Award-winning 1989 short Creature Comforts, and through his epic Wallace and Gromit mini-adventures The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave, Park has filled the mouths of his staunchly English, valiantly middle-class players clay-animated penguins and sheep as well as ladies and gents with soulful choppers: In good times and bad, the set of an Aardman jaw speaks volumes as said penguin, sheep, dog, woman, or man adapts with tea-and-toast-loving civility to unpredictable (and usually daunting) fate.
In their first full-length feature, the care Park and codirector Peter Lord lavish on the dental work of poultry (who, it can now be proved, do have lips) pays off. Chicken Run is a delightful, perceptive, funny, detail-perfect fable about group effort, stick-to-itiveness, and Anglo-American relations among fowl of the Greatest Generation. References place the story sometime soon after World War II. The chicken coops at the Tweedy farm, fenced in by barbed wire, look as gloomy as POW barracks; indeed, the command-center hut in which the fearless Ginger (voiced by Ab Fab's Julia Sawalha) plots her flock's great escape bears the same number as that of Stalag 17.
Just when Ginger has run out of ideas she gets little help from the farm's more timid cluckers, including Pollyanna-daft Babs (Jane Horrocks), worrying Mac (Lynn Ferguson), and overbearing Bunty (Imelda Staunton) a possible savior falls out of the sky, like a Yank on a parachute mission. According to the circus poster that floats down with him, Rocky (Mel Gibson) is ''The Flying Rooster.'' Surely he can teach his admiring audience of grounded ladies to do the same?
Chicken Run is a can-do comedy built of small, confident gestures. It's of a piece with other Aardman projects, not a breakthrough in form or content. But the cozy, period-piece story is sharpened by Karey Kirkpatrick's bright script (''America! Always showing up late for every war!'' the coop's old pip-pip rooster grumbles). The wit is droll, heightened by a whistle-through-danger musical score. The throwaway references to other movies (Modern Times, Braveheart), plays (Sweeney Todd), and transatlantic cultural attitudes are a tickle. And the technique is as remarkably fluid as ever. (One cackle: an excellent clay-animation spit take.)
The vocal talents are uniformly superior, from Gibson playing the vain celebrity (''I'm not even certain he [is] American,'' one onlooker sniffs) to Miranda Richardson as the classically pinched villainess, Mrs. Tweedy. This excellence is the work of human actors who never feel the need to outshine their characters. It's also the work of Nick Park and his team, Englishmen who, in defiance of their national image, pay careful attention to the teeth of the matter. A-