It’s been 23 years and no film has been able to dethrone Chicken Run as the highest-grossing stop-motion animated film of all time. During its release, it was also the highest-grossing DreamWorks Animation film of all time, making $227 million against a budget of $42 million. A ton of reasons could be given for its success — maybe it was the incredibly high praise from critics, or movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas piquing interest in audiences for more stop-motion animated films.
Or maybe it was that Chicken Run was just so undeniably British.
The British Charm
Chicken Run was made by a British animation studio called Aardman Animations in partnership with DreamWorks Animation as part of their five-picture deal. You can very easily tell the creators were from the UK: Listening to the film’s dialogue is enough to get any non-British person’s knickers in a twist. Characters say things like, “Codswallop!” “Poppycock!” and “I didn’t do ‘owt!”, as if audiences outside of the UK were supposed to know what all of that meant.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, the CEO of DreamWorks Animation at the time, voted to keep all the British slang as he believed it gave the film character and an identity of its own. “Do you literally know what it means? No,” he said. “Do you understand what it means? Yes.”
Thanks to the serious bank it made at the box office, this was a risk that lavishly paid off, as Katzenberg initially questioned whether the “Bristol English provincial-ness” would hinder the movie’s success or make it so wildly different that it immediately piqued interest and made it a must-see. “Not only have people never seen a movie that looks like this, they’ve never seen a movie that talks like this,” he said. “But that’s its charm.”
He was right. Roger Ebert called the film “a magical new animated film that looks and sounds like no other” and said one of the movie’s charms is “the way it lets many of the characters be true eccentrics (it’s set in England in the 1950s[…]).” Variety Magazine praised the film for being “witty in an old-fashioned, veddy British way”. Florida Times-Union called the film “a paean to British eccentricity, equal parts cluelessness and hopefulness, full of English slang and dry Brit humor.”
Of course, the movie’s British nature is only part of the story: Chicken Run is also simply a great film, with splendid animation, likable characters, and enjoyable references to old movies like The Great Escape and Stalag 17. The film is bursting with personality and is so spirited and fun that it’s hard to imagine someone watching it and not having a huge smile on their face.
With Chicken Run’s success both critically and commercially, you would think Katzenberg would have Aardman Animations continue making films with the same British appeal Katzenberg initially found oh-so-charming.
This ended up not being the case.
Shrek came out the next year and made $491 million against a budget of $50 million, more than twice what Chicken Run made. If you’ve seen Shrek, you’ll know that it’s cheeky, loud, filled with pop culture references, and incredibly American, the movie in large part being a parody of animated Disney films. It was clear as day what the big money maker was, and it wasn’t good-natured grounded films with dry wit humor and slang Americans couldn’t understand.
Aardman’s next film, however, was Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, a part of the remarkably British Wallace & Gromit franchise. These characters didn’t just speak unfamiliar words in a British accent, they ate cheese and crackers, grew marrows, and drove on the left side of the road.
The word marrow was a “big issue” as the vegetable is mostly popular in Great Britain, and Wallace in the American film version calls the vegetable a “melon” instead. The possibility of recasting Peter Sallis, the original voice of Wallace, was raised and Park strongly declined, but as a compromise, big names like Helena Bonham-Carter and Ralph Fiennes were in the film — names Americans would recognize.
“If there is a culture clash,” Wallace & Gromit creator Nick Park said, “it mainly comes from the fact that DreamWorks are looking out for the American audience.” In the 2015 documentary A Grand Night In: The Story of Aardman, Park looked back at the studio’s time with Dreamworks and said, “Sometimes, in the conversation, you just got the idea that they just wish it was a bit less British, that’s all. We love it, but it’s just a bit British, you know.”
The Curse of the Were-Rabbit made $197 million against a budget of $30 million, which, while a profit, was especially low in comparison to the DreamWorks Animation movies that came before it. Shrek 2 made $935 million, Shark Tale earned $371 million, and Madagascar made $556 million. Flushed Away, released in 2006, was Aardman’s last film with DreamWorks, and despite starring Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet, only made $179 million against a budget of $149 million.
By 2007, the five-picture deal had fallen through, and Aardman and DreamWorks split their ways.
Life After Dreamworks
Since their split, Aardman’s films have never been able to replicate their success with Chicken Run, but they continue to make critically acclaimed titles like The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! and Shaun the Sheep Movie (which got a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes). They’ve also received numerous nominations for Academy Awards, as The Pirates, Shaun the Sheep Movie, and A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon all got nominated for Best Animated Feature.
With the Chicken Run sequel coming out soon, only time will tell if it ends up being as popular as the first film. Regardless, Chicken Run still remains one of the best animated films out there, largely thanks to Aardman Animation introducing worldwide audiences, especially young ones, to an animated film that reveled in its British nature — and was all the more brilliant for it.
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