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