Home > Reviews > CHICKEN RUN – Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell

CHICKEN RUN – Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell

chickenrunOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

The plasticine people of Aardman Animations took the world by storm in 1989 with the creation of Wallace and Gromit, a Yorkshire-based inventor and his incredibly expressive dog, who starred in three cinematic adventures: A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave. Their creator, Nick Park, was thrust into the stratosphere: six years, three Oscars, and a multi-million pound deal with Dreamworks Pictures later, and the world’s first “claymation” motion picture has finally hit theatres. Chicken Run, which was co-directed by Park and fellow animator Peter Lord, is a terrific family adventure – exciting, funny, scary, and technically amazing.

Chicken Run, to be blunt, is The Great Escape with fowl – but as derivative as this sounds, the end result is pure genius. The chickens of Tweedy’s Farm dream of escaping from their coops (and the chop) to live a life of freedom in the meadows they can see far away, through the chicken wire. The leader of the group is Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha), a headstrong hen who is forever hatching elaborate and spectacularly unsuccessful plans to fly the nest with her resourceful Scottish pal Mac (Lynn Ferguson). Things change in the hen house forever when Rocky the Rooster (Mel Gibson) literally drops out of the sky and offers to help them learn how to fly – in return for letting him lie low for a while. However, their dreams of freedom are put in more jeopardy when Mrs. Tweedy herself (Miranda Richardson) invests in a new machine which she hopes will revolutionize her operation forever: chickens go in, pies come out. But, as the bubble-headed Babs (Jane Horrocks) points out, “she doesn’t want to be a pie” – and escape becomes more imperative than ever.

Something astonishing happens whenever John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams get together. Individually, I have not been especially impressed with either composer’s work, which has included titles such as Smilla’s Sense of Snow, The Replacement Killers and Face/Off. However, when the two teamed up for Antz two years ago, the result was pure film music magic: themes abounded, quirky and inventive orchestrations were the norm, and good old-fashioned fun virtually tumbled from the speakers. The same kind of life and effervescence is present again in Chicken Run, surely one of the best scores of the year in terms of sheer delightfulness.

The three best words to describe this score would be “eclectic”, “lively” and “hilarious” – but even they don’t come close to capturing the brilliance of this score. The main theme is rooted in the grand tradition of British war movie music, a pompous, full-throated brass march that Ron Goodwin would have been proud to call his own. But it’s also surprisingly malleable in the way it is performed – it makes for a superb somber, reflective motif in ‘We Need A Miracle’, is afforded a particularly heartfelt rendition during the lyrical ‘Up on the Roof’, and is performed with almost magisterial grandeur during finale, ‘Escape to Paradise’, which also cleverly tips its hat to the oompah brass band marches written by Julian Nott for the earlier Wallace and Gromit shorts. And then there is the superb secondary motif that first crops up during ‘A Really Big Truck Arrives’, and which forms the cornerstone of the score’s action material such as ‘Into the Pie Machine’, ‘The Chickens Are Revolting’ and the exultant, exuberant ‘Lift Off’.

The sheer weight of music, the varying styles and tempos, and the orchestral motifs which appear arbitrarily and vanish just as quickly all make Chicken Run an exciting, stimulating listening experience, but by far the most impressive element of Chicken Run its orchestration. For starters, the things Powell and Gregson-Williams do with kazoos are nothing less than inspired. It’s not just one kazoo buzzing away on its own – there’s a whole section of them! They lead the melody during the ‘Main Titles’ and in ‘The Evil Mrs. Tweedy’, provide hilarious accompaniment to the big-band jazz of ‘Rocky and the Circus’, and play in fantastic counterpoint during the showstopping ‘Building the Crate’, surely the most infectious cue of 2000 to date.

I lost count of the number of unexpected instruments the composers manage to work into the orchestra: as well as all the kazoos, there’s a cymbalom in the ‘Main Titles’, harmonicas in ‘Chickens Are Not Organised’ and ‘Cocktails and Flighty Thoughts’, chopsocky kung-fu pastiches, wailing bagpipes and much more besides in the lively but eclectic ‘Flight Training’, and stand up bass jazz in ‘Babs Big Break’. In addition to this, there is a superb percussion section, lots people whistling, and a vast assortment of choirs, notably Zimmer-style male voice crescendos during ‘The Evil Mrs. Tweedy’, ‘A Really Big Truck Arrives’ and the highly tragic ‘Rocky, A Fake All Along’, any or all of which could well be in-jokes for score fans, especially as both composers graduated from the Media Ventures Academy. In addition to this, there are also a whole ream of (intentional?) homages to other scores and composers – for example, the music in ‘Rats’ sounds for all the world like something out of a Nino Rota Fellini score, the opening moments of ‘Building the Crate’ feature a combination of Edward Scissorhands and Batman, while ‘Babs’ Big Break’ begins with a brief rendition of the Jaws theme by the cellos.

I could go on and on extolling the virtues of Chicken Run as a score, but will stop right here and simply urge you to go and buy the thing. Jaded collectors who thought that innovation was dead in modern film scoring need look no further than the work of John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams for proof that, when presented with the right project and the right set of circumstances, the composers of today can compete with the best that film music has ever offered.

Rating: *****

Track Listing:

  • Opening Escape (3:39)
  • Main Titles (3:24)
  • The Evil Mrs. Tweedy (4:22)
  • Rats! (1:09)
  • Chickens Are Not Organised (1:01)
  • We Need A Miracle (2:03)
  • Rocky and the Circus (3:51)
  • Flight Training (3:39)
  • A Really Big Truck Arrives (5:56)
  • Cocktails and Flighty Thoughts (1:58)
  • Babs’ Big Break (1:40)
  • Flip Flop and Fly (written by Charles Calhoun and Lou Willie Turner, performed by Ellis Hall) (2:09)
  • Up On The Roof (3:08)
  • Into the Pie Machine (3:10)
  • Rocky, A Fake All Along (3:28)
  • Building the Crate (3:32)
  • The Wanderer (written by Ernest Peter Maresca, performed by Dion) (2:47)
  • The Chickens Are Revolting (2:45)
  • Lift Off (3:41)
  • Escape to Paradise (4:59)

Running Time: 62 minutes 43 seconds

RCA Victor 09026-63702-2 (2000)

Music composed by Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell. Conducted by Harry Gregson-Williams, Gavin Greenaway and Nick Ingham. Orchestrations by Bruce L. Fowler, Elizabeth Finch, Harry Kim, Ladd McIntosh and Yvonne S. Moriarty. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage. Edited by Richard Whitfield. Mastered by Nick Webb. Album produced by Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell.

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