Ty Burr says two family friendly summer movies are really aimed at grown-ups

By Ty Burr
Updated June 28, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Chicken Run”’s best jokes fly over the heads of kids

When does a kid’s movie stop being a kid’s movie? When its plot, characters, and dialogue refer to movies only their parents could have seen.

I’m thinking about ”Chicken Run,” which I took my daughters (ages 3 and 5) to see over the weekend. Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing but respect for directors Nick Park and Peter Lord and their fellow stop-motion animation geeks at England’s Aardman Studios. Park’s Wallace and Gromit shorts are in heavy rotation on our VCR, and if ”Chicken Run” isn’t quite up to the standards of those daft, Oscar-winning slices of nonsense — Mel Gibson is surprisingly callow as the voice of the heroic rooster, and, I’m sorry, but your average plasticine pullet just doesn’t have the expressive soul of Gromit the dog — the new feature is still mightily entertaining.

The catch is that one’s full enjoyment is predicated on a knowledge of that hoary old film genre, the prison-escape movie. ”Chicken Run” is, baldly stated, ”The Great Escape” with hens. As in the ’63 POW flick, the characters live in a mud-and-barracks concentration camp-style enclosure ringed by barbed wire and patrolled by slavering guard dogs. Much of the action occurs in building No.17 — as in ”Stalag 17.” At one point, the score even paraphrases the famous ”Colonel Bogey March” whistling theme from ’57’s ”The Bridge on the River Kwai.”

These are exactly the kind of details that broaden the appeal for a film nominally aimed at kids; they bring Mom and Dad into the tent with sly, knowing pop culture references. But what about the kids themselves, who don’t have the originals under their belt? Even this film drooler’s children, who’ve already seen most of the MGM classic musicals and who have been known to line up their stuffed animals and make them say ”I am Spartacus!” one after the other, draw a blank when it comes to Steve McQueen or William Holden plotting the big break.

Without that knowledge, ”Chicken Run” is potent, but not entirely pleasant stuff. In fact, it’s pretty damned grim for most of its running time, what with the threat of the hatchet hanging over the characters, a villain who’ll remind small-fry of the worst substitute teacher they ever had, and a prevailing grey tone of desperation. (Okay, it IS a British movie…) Until the final 30 minutes, when even a toddler can figure out that a happy ending is in store, my own kids were torn between fascination with the pliant, rubbery textures of the clay surfaces and whimpering near-terror at the bleakness of the thing.

God forbid that children should be fed an exclusive diet of the perky, soulless pap that Disney and its imitators churn out. In fact, a little darkness visible is good to grow on: We love ”The Wizard of Oz” as much for (if not MORE for) the Wicked Witch and the Flying Monkeys as for Dorothy and ”Over the Rainbow” (which, come to think of it, is a pretty bleak little number itself). But ”Chicken Run”’s darkness isn’t organic (or even free-range) — it comes from the decision to adapt a grown-up movie genre for kids, which in turn comes from the film industry’s realization that your kiddie flick will be a lot more fun (and probably make more money) if it plays to parents as well.

Interestingly, the first animated property to aim wisecracks over the heads of children was Jay Ward’s original ”Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” series on TV in the 1950s. A revolution in pop-cult irony, it’s now coming to the big screen, with Robert De Niro playing Fearless Leader (and parodying his ”You talkin’ to me” monologue from ”Taxi Driver” in the bargain). Based on the ”Rocky” trailers I’ve seen, ”Chicken Run” looks like the far better movie, but I sometimes wonder if Nick Park hasn’t taken Ward’s lesson too much to heart — and pitched his film to the parents at the expense of the kids.