Bonus Features: Chicken People (2016)

Our current Movie of the Month, 2016’s Chicken People, is a fluff piece documentary about eccentrics who breed chickens for Best in Show competitions, produced by Country Music Television’s filmmaking wing CMT Docs.  It’s closer in quality to reality TV than it is to more hoity-toity docs like Gates of Heaven, but the volume and variety of chickens on display is borderline surreal at feature length.  This is especially striking in the film’s fine-art photography shoots set against a black void, where various chickens are examined uncomfortably close-up in high definition.  Chicken People does its best to highlight the personalities of the people who breed & manicure these exquisite show-chicken specimens, but those imperfect human masters cannot compete with their pampered little dinosaurs for pure entertainment value.  Chickens are such an omnipresent American staple that we rarely take the time to consider how absolutely bizarre they are as a species, and it was satisfying to see a documentary take the time to examine their physical features and wider cultural footprint in intense detail.

While chickens frequently play small roles in movies like Moana, Return to Oz, Disney’s Robin Hood, and Herzog’s Stroszek, it’s rare to find a film that’s entirely about chickens, allowing the strange little beasts to take center stage.  They’re largely overlooked as a worthwhile cinematic subject.  However, Chicken People isn’t entirely alone in giving chickens their full due on the silver screen.  Here are a few more recommended titles if you were hypnotized by the immaculately groomed birds in our Movie of the Month and want to see more movies where chickens are the star of the show.

The Natural History of the Chicken (2000)

The most obvious pairing for a chicken-themed double feature would be the made-for-TV documentary The Natural History of the Chicken, which could just as easily been titled Chicken People without any major changes to its content.  Like Chicken People, The Natural History of the Chicken is a wonderfully quirky documentary about the nature and culture of chickens in America; it just happened to be produced for PBS instead of CMT.  Instead of solely covering the Best-in-Show beauty pageants documented in our Movie of the Month, Natural History focuses on a wider range of domestic chicken phenomena: chickens being frozen in winter and thawed back to life, chickens with the self-sacrificing bravery of Christ on the cross, neighbors being sued for their obnoxious collection of screeching roosters, chickens intently watching opera on television, etc.  The film shares the same fascination with the tiny-dino birds that makes Chicken People so hypnotic (including photographing the beasts in pitch-black voids to emphasize their strange physiques), as well as its reality-television patina as a work of art.

Because The Natural History of the Chicken was produced over two decades ago, its version of reality-TV filmmaking is more of the Rescue 911 variety, where lightly fictionalized “real” incidents are conveyed in dramatic re-enactments instead of heavy post-production editing.  That quality only adds to the film’s delicate surrealism, though, which is also emphasized in its cut-and-paste green screen effects.  There’s something about its low-key absurdism that reminded me heavily of David Byrne’s Americana portrait True Stories, which I mean as the highest compliment.  And it even comes with its own animal-documentary pedigree behind the camera that makes that kind of lofty comparison somewhat reasonable.  Director Mark Lewis is best known for his 1980s documentary about the disastrous introduction of Cane Toads to Australia (Cane Toads: An Unnatural History), but he’s also got aesthetically similar pieces on dogs, cats, cows, and rats.  I’m all in on watching his entire catalog after falling in love with this chicken doc. It’s incredibly endearing, and maybe even bests Chicken People as the pinnacle of the chicken documentary genre.

Chicken Park (1994)

Speaking of repurposing the title Chicken People, I think it’d also be a great name for a horror film, like a poultry version of Alligator People.  We’ve seen a horror take on humanoid chicken people before in films like Tod Browning’s Freaks and Troma’s Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, so it’s not that far outside the realm of possibility.  Even in their pampered beauty-contest version, the edible little dinosaurs are just as creepy as they are oddly beautiful, and I think that imagery could easily be mined for more creature feature monstrosities – especially since the ones we’ve already got are such a weak crop.  The chicken-person gag in Freaks is great, but it’s only a brief coda at the end of the film instead of the main thrust of its plot.  The bad-taste musical Poultrygeist does feature some great chicken-person gore at feature length, but is outright unwatchable thanks to Lloyd Kaufman’s borderline reactionary-Conservatism as a supposed equal-opportunity-offender.  So, the only genuine option for feature-length chicken horror is not a Cronenbergian creature feature about humanoid chicken hybrids but rather a straight-to-Italian-TV horror comedy that was hated even in its time by critics & audiences alike.

As you might have guessed from its title and year of release, Chicken Park is a feature-length parody of Jurassic Park, featuring chickens instead of dinosaurs.  It strives to be a vulgar ZAZ knockoff but lacks the necessary energy or specificity of humor to really excel as such. Still, it’s mostly cute-bad (especially in its Night of the Lepus dino-chicken effects) as opposed to the offensive-on-purpose bad vibes of Poultrygeist (give or take a few unnecessary, unforgivable indulgences in homophobic slurs).  It also earns minor bonus points for heavily featuring Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma in a bit part as a Vampira/Morticia Addams spoof (among other one-off parodies of non-dino movies of the 90s like Home Alone, Pretty Woman, and Rambo), which is some A+ casting, but not nearly enough to carry the entire film.  Chicken Park is only recommendable for being the one halfway-watchable, feature-length chicken horror of note.  We deserve better chicken-themed schlock. They’re terrifying! Close-up at least.

Chicken Run (2000)

It’s a little misleading to claim that there is too little chicken content across the broad cinematic landscape.  There is one specific area where chickens have been allowed to run wild: children’s films. Besides being featured as comical side characters in films like Moana and Return to Oz, there are also a few high-profile kids’ movies with a main cast of animated chickens: 1991’s Rock-a-Doodle, 2005’s Chicken Little, 2015’s Huevos: Little Rooster’s Egg-cellent Adventure, etc.  I’m too allergic to modern computer animation to suggest most of those titles as a Chicken People pairing, but since the majority of movies about chickens appear to be made for children, I also can’t ignore that end of the spectrum entirely.  My way of meeting the criterion halfway is in finally checking out Chicken Run, a traditional stop-motion animated feature from Aardman Studios, home of Wallace & Gromit.  Raking in $200mil at the box office, it’s to date the most commercially successful stop-motion film of all time.  Those aren’t Minions numbers, exactly, but it’s still encouraging that a traditionally animated feature was able to succeed at all in a post-Pixar world.  The popularity of chickens in children’s media is apparently just that strong.

Chicken Run is an animated homage to classic prison escape dramas like Shawshank Redemption, Cool Hand Luke and, most significantly, The Great Escape.  It details a coop full of cowardly British hens being hyped up by a brash American rooster (unfortunately voiced by Mel Gibson) into escaping from their death-trap farm before they’re dismembered and packaged into meals.  A children’s film about solidarity and collective action in the face of seemingly insurmountable oppression, it’s a hilariously dark and daringly political work – especially in an era when most kids’ media settles for celebrities making empty pop culture references in unenthused voiceover.  Chicken Run is maybe a little too dialogue-heavy to stand out as the very best Aardman has to offer, as the studio most excels at translating Silent Era physical comedy to the stop-motion medium.  Still, it’s tactile and emotionally complex in a way most post-Pixar CG animation isn’t allowed to be.  Besides, it likely is the best narrative feature film entirely about chickens, regardless of medium or studio.

-Brandon Ledet

Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon (2020)

I remember being thoroughly charmed by Aardman Animations’ Shaun the Sheep movie five years ago, but I don’t remember much of anything about the movie or what happens in it. I suspect that’s because not much of anything happens in it at all. Adapting the Wallace & Gromit spin-off series for the big screen meant having to upscale the adorable sheep’s stop-motion farmland hijinks with a trip to The Big City to mark the occasion. Aardman did a great job of downplaying that necessity, though, keeping Shaun’s fish-out-of-water antics amongst urban chaos as low-key & pleasantly charming as possible. Unfortunately, it seems that the sequel had to go even bigger in scale to justify its own existence and lost some of that low-key charm in the process. You can even feel the sequel’s mood-deflating excess in its Michael Bay flavored title, Farmageddon, which is maybe the exact opposite of what you’d want from a low-stakes animated comedy about a cute sheep.

In theory, I’m all for a War of the Worlds inspired sci-fi throwback within the Shaun the Sheep universe. The eerie theremin soundtrack cues, spooky green lights, and 1950s throwback UFOs that differentiate Farmageddon from the first Shaun the Sheep movie land it squarely in my aesthetic wheelhouse. It’s the cutesy, impish alien creature that toddles out of those UFOs that killed the mood for me. In a slightly altered repeat of the first film, Shaun has to travel into town to help an alien creature that crash landed near his farm find her spaceship so she can travel home. This prompts a very familiar series of gags where Shaun has to hide the fact that he’s a sheep operating undercover in People Places, except this time he’s also covering for a purple, childlike space alien who’s constantly hyperactive from guzzling too much candy & soda. I know I shouldn’t fault a kids’ movie for featuring an obnoxious, brightly colored alien mascot character with magical powers and a bottomless love for sugar; she’s not designed for my entertainment. Still, it’s an impossible fault to ignore, considering that all of the funniest gags in the film involve the sheep on the farm and not the sci-fi add-ons referenced in the title.

There’s no reason to be too harsh here. Although Farmageddon is nowhere near as successful as the first Shaun the Sheep movie, it’s still cute & charming enough to be worthy of a lazy-afternoon watch. Its space alien Poochie character and godawful Top 40s pop music soundtrack threaten to tank the entire enterprise, but the Aardman brand is too strong to allow that to happen. This is still an adorably animated stop-motion love letter to silent comedy greats of the past like Chaplin, Keaton, and Tati – one with winking Film Geek references to movies like Modern Times & 2001: A Space Odyssey. If it can use the brightly colored sugar rush of its alien mascot to hook younger children into that Antique Cinema nerdom (and sci-fi genre nerdom to boot), who am I to complain? I missed the low-key charms of the first film while tagging along behind that purple, sugar-addled beast, but Farmageddon still occasionally gave me something to smile about elsewhere.

-Brandon Ledet

Early Man (2018)

Aardman Animations is not the first place I look to for surprise in my stop-motion animated media. The folks behind the A Town Called Panic series thrive on chaos & comedic surprise; Laika Entertainment continually surprises in the technological advancements they bring to stop-motion as an artform in every release (most recently in the jaw-dropping Kubo and the Two Strings). Aardman, for their part, are the picture of consistency. Brands like Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep are consistently clever & adorable, but in the exact way you’d expect from Aardman, who have been adorable & clever for decades running now. That’s why I was confident that I knew exactly what to expect form Aardman’s newest release, Early Man. Advertised as the studio’s take on caveman life & follies in the Stone Age, I expected a Wallace & Gromit-style romp flavored with anachronistic jokes about volcanoes & dinosaurs. Early Man starts exactly that way, borrowing a few gags form The Flintstones where prehistoric creatures are employed as household appliances – baby gator clothes pins, buzzing beetle electric razors, etc. After that early business of place-setting, though, the movie surprised (and delighted) me in its choice of genre, unexpectedly functioning as a . . . sports movie? I did not see that coming.

Eddie Redmayne voices our protagonist caveman (the most likable he’s been outside his weirdo, pseudo-drag performance in Jupiter Ascending), a plucky go-getter named Dug. His eternal optimism comes in handy as his small tribe of cave-dwelling rabbit hunters are pushed out of their native land by an invading, more technologically advanced society (lead by another frequently unlikable Brit, Tom Hiddleston). The clash is an absurd literalization of the Bronze Age pushing the Stone Age out of existence, but not any more absurd than the battle used to determine which tribe will maintain possession of the contested land: a soccer match. Early Man immediately details the accidental invention of soccer in its prologue, then briefly drops the subject until it gradually becomes a very faithful participation in a traditional sports movie template. The film is much closer to the irreverent sports comedy antics of Shaolin Soccer than anything resembling a sports drama (as is natural from a stop-motion animated Aardman release), but its plot is a conventional underdog story about sports novices preparing for The Big Game against the best, most arrogant team in the land, with the exact results you’d expect. That genre choice might come as a surprise to any American audiences who stumble into the picture (not many, I’m guessing; the theater where I saw it on opening weekend was near-empty); I don’t think there was a single soccer ball featured in the film’s domestic advertising.

Genre & plot are obviously among the least important facets of any Aardman release. Early Man’s cavemen dolts, with their dopey pig snouts & overbites, are adorable buffoons, especially in comparison with their Bronze Age Adonis enemies. The movie even sidesteps common problems with these traditionalist, throwback kids’ movie narratives by making sure to include a race/gender-diverse cast of characters and no extraneous romance plot. The world these prehistoric goofballs occupy is also crawling with ridiculous creatures that often steal the show: a (sorta) anthropomorphic rock, a meteor crash-surviving cockroach, a hog who thinks he’s a dog, (perhaps most significantly) a fanged kaiju-sized duck, etc. Soccer is merely a backdrop for these creatures’ & cavemen’s nonstop barrage of Aardman-style goofs & gags, which are just as adorable & clever here as they always are.

Even though they rarely catch me by surprise, I love Aardman’s style just the way it is (bad pop music and all). I find it dispiriting that the studio isn’t Minions-level popular in America. There’s likely nothing that could save this film’s presumably dire domestic box office returns. Anyone willing to show up in the first place is likely only driven by leftover goodwill form the days of Wallace & Gromit, with a only a few new fans won over along the way. Still, I appreciated the unexpected genre shift in Aardman’s usual, adorable buffoonery here. Sports movies aren’t typically my genre of choice, but it was lovely to see Aardman deliver a genuine surprise while remaining true to their regular comedic tone. Keeping their consistent look & humor fresh might actually be a question of future genre experiments. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (lightly) tested horror waters for them in the past. Their upcoming Shaun the Sheep movie Armageddon looks like it dabbles in sci-fi. I likely would have enjoyed Early Man all the same if it hadn’t adapted Aardman’s style to a sports movie mold, but it might just be that exact kind of genre experimentation the studio needs to keep its loyal audience on their toes.

-Brandon Ledet