There are different kinds of applause for movies. The most common type is plot-based; it occurs when the good guy gets one over on the bad guy, or when the heroine tells off somebody snooty, and you usually hear it at the exact moment that the event occurs onscreen. But there's a different kind of applause, and, if you listen closely, you'll recognize it when you hear it. It's applause for a filmmaking job well done, and it typically comes at the end of a logistically difficult setpiece that's executed with great flair. It differs from "Hooray for the good guy" applause in that there's typically a second or so of silent awe after the impressive sequence, at which point everyone claps at once. I heard this type of applause at The Last of the Mohicans, after the final mountaintop battle, and at the end of musical numbers in Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, and after the protracted, impossibly convoluted suspense sequences in a De Palma or Spielberg movie.
You applaud these sorts of scenes the way you'd applaud a trapeze artist who just executed a triple, and you'll hear a lot of it during the new DreamWorks cartoon Chicken Run, a claymation adventure from British filmmakers Nick Park and Peter Lord and their British production house, Aardman Animations. This spoof of World War II prisoner-of-war pictures set on an English chicken farm is a delight from start to finish?funny, exciting and sweet, with sharply etched comic characterizations, sudden plot twists and a keen sense of the best way to get in and out of a scene. It's like a great Spielberg adventure, or one of those marvelous Disney films from the early 90s?the ones that were made before the studio's modern-era hitmaking formula became obvious and stale; the ones that reminded people of why they enjoyed going to movies.
Chicken Run really is that good. It's not out to reinvent the commercial animated feature, as DreamWorks' Prince of Egypt tried to do, but is an exceptionally well-made cartoon that appeals to both wide-eyed kids, regular adult moviegoers and film buffs. Some of Park and Lord's compositions are funny before the characters even open their mouths (perhaps I should say "beaks"). There are quotes from The Great Escape, Stalag 17 and the Indiana Jones pictures, a couple of action sequences as elaborate and expertly timed as anything Spielberg ever directed and many affectionate jokes at the expense of Mel Gibson, who provides the voice of Rocky the Flying Rooster, a handsome Yankee goofball who claims he can teach the incarcerated chickens how to fly. (An harrumphing elderly rooster who distrusts everything about Rocky declares, "I don't think he's even American!")
The film takes great delight in staging obvious jokes?the kinds of jokes you pretty much have to do if you're making a film with animated chickens. It makes them fresh by timing them just right. After the heroine, an escape-crazy chicken named Ginger (Julia Sawalha), makes a big St. Crispin's Day speech to her fellow hens that ends with, "You can live as free range chickens or die trying!," all the hens cheer? except for one, who raises a feathered wing and asks, "Dearie, are those our only two choices?"
Ginger is like a female bird version of Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. Rocky tweaks her singlemindedness, calling her a "hardboiled egg," and you quickly figure out that although Ginger places great faith in Rocky's potential to liberate the chickens, she's the real hero. She's determined to save herself and her feathered pals from being ground into meat pies by the farm owner, a gangly, mad-eyed harpy named Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson), who's like Nurse Ratched crossed with the housekeeper from Rebecca. A brilliantly edited opening montage?one of the aforementioned sequences that earned awestruck applause simply for being so amazingly good?depicts Ginger's various escape attempts, all of which are thwarted by evil-looking guard dogs and a groundskeeper who's as ruthless as he is stupid. Every time Ginger gets caught, the groundskeeper tosses her in "solitary"?a dumpster. The blackness that engulfs the screen whenever the dumpster lid is shut is used as an editing device, a strategic ellipsis that lets Park and Lord move the story forward to the next doomed escape attempt. Toward the end of the sequence we hear a metallic bouncing noise in the darkness, and when the lid opens to reveal the inside of the dumpster, we see Ginger bouncing a brussels sprout off the walls like McQueen with the baseball in The Great Escape.
If Mel Brooks had visual talent and made a cartoon at the height of his comic powers in the early 70s, it might have been as good as Chicken Run. And I stress "might." Anybody who's seen Aardman's short work?particularly the Wallace and Gromit featurettes about a cheese-obsessed inventor and his loyal dog?will not be surprised. Park is an Oscar-winning short-filmmaker. He has never put his name on a film that's not utterly charming and fun; more so than most live-action filmmakers, or even most animators, Aardman has an old-fashioned sense of what the word "entertainment" means?expert precision served up with humility. Watching Chicken Run or a Wallace and Gromit short, we laugh partly because what we're seeing onscreen must have been fiendishly difficult to do, and partly because the results are executed with offhand grace. The filmmakers' unfussy brilliance is part of the joke.
Consider an amazing image from midway through the film: a God's-eye-view shot of the barnyard, reminiscent of the overhead pan that ends Travis Bickle's rampage in Taxi Driver, except you're looking down at a bunch of chickens. It's raining in the shot. You can actually see fat drops of water falling in real time from somewhere above the camera and splattering the chickens gathered solemnly down below. How on Earth was this done? There doesn't appear to be digital trickery involved. I have to assume Park and Lord actually built a bunch of model chicken characters with moving parts in order to fake stop-motion movements in real time and then sprayed them with a rain machine while moving the camera slowly a couple feet above their heads. Whatever the technique, it must have taken a lot of time to plan and immense concentration to execute, yet the shot itself lasts perhaps six seconds. It's not often that you see a film where everyone involved was working at the top of his game without making a big deal of it.
It's not just the look and feel of Chicken Run that make it work; the script and vocal performances contribute as well. The very notion of the movie is ludicrous?the chickens have buggy eyes and teeth, for God's sake?yet none of the characters winks at the audience the way characters in a recent vintage Disney movie wink at the audience. Ginger, Rocky, Mrs. Tweedy and the supporting cast of characters?whose ranks include an unflappable hen who never stops crocheting and a couple of surprisingly philosophical rats?behave as if they're real people in a real story. Because they take the events seriously within the context of light comedy, so do we. The screenplay tells the story through compositions and cuts rather than endless verbal exposition, which is ideally how any film should tell a story. The most expressive and striking effects are achieved by framing a shot in a way that conceals and then suddenly reveals a bit of information, so that the revelation is both informative and amusing. Watch the scene late in the film where Ginger literally puts together the pieces of information that reveal Rocky's dark secret. It's a textbook example of showing rather than telling?the kind of suspense filmmaking Hitchcock used to do better than anyone in his era, and that Spielberg does better than anyone today. Spielberg is one of the founders of DreamWorks; he must have been delighted to release a movie that spoofs him as well as he spoofs himself, and that stands on its own as 85 minutes of sheer joy.
The Perfect Storm Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Any movie called The Perfect Storm better have a perfect storm in it, and on a purely technical level, Wolfgang Petersen's adaptation of Sebastian Junger's bestseller does not disappoint. But the storm might be too enormous, too dazzling, too Hollywood-lavish for its own good: it snuffs out human-scale emotions as a gale-force wind snuffs a candle flame.
Which isn't to say The Perfect Storm is an awful movie. It has the right look, vibe and intentions, and considering that it's positioned as a big-budget summer movie, I'm not sure there's anything the filmmakers could have done that would have satisfied both the Friday-night date crowd and fans of Junger's book. On paper, the story was a mystery. Everybody on board the fishing trawler Andrea Gail disappeared off the coast of Massachusetts during the meteorological collision of intersecting storms. Because the crew died, it was impossible to know exactly what the captain and the crew were thinking; the best the author could do was gather meteorological explanations, historical anecdotes about the history of fishing in Gloucester and interviews with people who survived the storm, then make an educated guess.
William Witliff's script preserves the central dilemma faced by the ship's captain, Billy Tyne (George Clooney), and his equally desperate crew: whether to wait at sea until the storm blows over, letting some $60,000 worth of caught swordfish rot in the hull, or make a run for home and risk death. But Hollywood movies are more comfortable with the present tense?with action rather than guesswork?so that means invented and mostly cliched dialogue when the ship goes to sea, delivered by cliched characters in cliched situations that you've seen in other nautical adventures. There's a goofy loner named Bugsy who falls for a woman at a bar the night before the fishing trip and is amazed when she shows up the next morning at the dock. "Nobody ever said goodbye to me before," he says. There's the handsome divorced loner (Mark Wahlberg) who's in love with a Gloucester woman (Diane Lane, in the film's best performance) and can't stop talking about how he wants to settle down. A newly hired thug crew-member (William Fichtner) grates on a bearded, super-responsible dad (John C. Reilly) and they hate each other so much you just know one of them is going to save the other's life. Capt. Tyne is happiest when he's at sea, so you know he'll die there. Everyone on the Andrea Gail is a variation on the freckle-faced draftee in a war picture who shows a picture of his girlfriend back home in Iowa, then steps on a land mine.
It's not all missteps. The performances are mostly honest and credible, and it's a rare pleasure to see a $140-million summer movie about blue-collar manual laborers trying to put food on the table. The digital effects range is expressive?particularly the clouded orange skies, which recall descriptions of sunsets and sunrises in Joseph Conrad's nautical short stories, and the shots of boats plunging into the troughs of giant waves. And a few images linger in the mind: Wahlberg floating on an inky sea, Lane's face crumbling as she watches a pessimistic tv news report. But as a whole, The Perfect Storm disappoints: it's too much and not enough, and because the Andrea Gail crew isn't developed beyond the archetypal level, it's hard to care deeply about their fate. Petersen is a whiz with effects and suspense but most terrible at characterization. His Das Boot and In the Line of Fire are the exceptions that prove the rule; the rest of Petersen's output is closer in quality to Shattered or Air Force One or the wretched Outbreak, in which the most complex character was a monkey.
In The Perfect Storm, a parallel subplot about the attempt of Coast Guard helicopter pilots to rescue a yacht crew generates more rooting interest than the tragedy of the Andrea Gail?and you don't even know the pilots' names. The storm howls, and the human drama is lost at sea.