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The Great Cue: Chicken Run

by Cary Wong

One of the biggest thrills about going to a movie is when a particular sequence and its accompanying music meld so perfectly together that you cannot imagine one without the other. This rhapsodic high is then continued when the CD soundtrack come out and a cue perfectly encapsulates this moment and for a long time to come, I can't stop putting this cue on repeat on my CD player, listening to it over and over again. This is "The Great Cue." A cue so melodic and memorable, that you run the risk of making it less great by just the sheer number of times you listen, analyze and enjoy the cue. Some great cues in the past include the asteroid chase from John Williams' The Empire Strikes Back, the main theme from Patrick Doyle's Indochine, the piano-playing on the beach sequence from Michael Nyman's The Piano, Jodie Foster chasing the alien signal in Alan Silvestri's Contact, and the Montana horse riding sequence from Thomas Newman's The Horse Whisperer. The last cue to do this to me was "The Duel of the Fates" from last summer's The Phantom Menace. This summer, it's a brilliant cue called "Building the Crate" from what I believe is the best movie this summer: the inventive, unique and just plain joyous Chicken Run.

Chicken Run is the brain child of Aardman Productions, the creators of the Academy Award winning, animated Wallace and Gromit series, and while we may be spoiled with the advanced looks of Pixar and other computer generated animation, directors Peter Lord and Nick Park's genius is that there is more going on in one frame of their stop action claymation-like creations than most animated movies period. Add to that the British voices and colloquialisms and you get a mix of down to earth sensibilities with an original and unique style.

Chicken Run's story is relatively simple. The chickens are kept in a POW type camp where they must lay eggs to survive the wrath of Mr. and Mrs. Twenty, the owners of an egg company. It's only when Mrs. Twenty realizes there's no profit in eggs that the horror of the chicken's fate becomes evident to us and to them. "I don't want to be a pie," is the classic line from the movie that encompasses the spirit of the movie as well as the absurdity, and the chickens know they must escape. It's great family fun, but there are winks galore for the adults in the audience, including a Star Trek reference that had me rolling.

The score is by the composing team of John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams, whose underrated score for the animated Antz was the perfect accompaniment for the adventures of Z, the ant. Their style is more moment to moment oriented (as opposed to motifs) and they use many untraditional instruments in their scores. This did not prepare me for the fun they had with Chicken Run, a cacophony of all types of musical styles, from the use of Asian to Scottish melodies for no other reason except that it fits the action. As I was watching the movie, I did notice how fun the music was, but then came the sequence in the movie where the "Building the Crate" cues appears, and it blew me away. I will not spoil anything here about the what happens in this section except to say that it shows the true triumph of a chicken's spirit.

The cue itself is a three and a half minute gem which may not work if you haven't seen the sequence, however is so buoyant and catchy, I can see it being used in trailers and commercials for years to come. I am not that adept at speaking technically about music, but a little analysis of the cue may give us some clue to its genius.

The first few seconds is a melancholy intro to what I am calling the "Building Theme" which has not been heard in the score up until that point. It is a short whiff of the theme, slowed down and deliberate. Then comes a reprise of what can only be called a loving tribute to Elmer Bernstein's The Great Escape, a melody that is used throughout the movie whenever the chickens "hatch" a plan to escape. This segues into a Danny Elfman-ish sequence with homage to his Pee Wee's Big Adventure and then later on, an addition of a Edward Scissorhands reference that helps to build anticipation of the "Building" theme.

And then it starts: the "Building" theme. It is a wholly unique, but if I have to make a comparison, I would say it's akin to a Shostokovich march, which is so catchy and rousing that any country could adopt it as their national anthem and it would not be out of place. Just to remind us not to take this theme too seriously, however, Powell and Gregson-Williams ends the theme with a chorus of (and I am not kidding you) kazoos. The theme builds again until we reach a break where it slows down, regroups and we get our third and final presentation of the "Building" theme with its rousing finish, which unfortunately ends back on a more reflective sound. This works well in the sequence of the movie, but I wish the musical cue on the CD could have finished in more of a flourish. Of course, that would have been cheating, and I am more than content with how it ends.

"Building the Crate." Remember that cue. What I recommend is that you buy the CD (from RCA Victor), then watch the movie (don't let the long lines deter you), and then after the movie, I swear, you will want to run home (or to your car) and pop the CD in. The only drag is the inclusion of two pop songs which work fine in the movie but is a little jarring on the CD, but that easily fixed with a little programming.

"Chicken Run" and cue #16 will be in my CD player all summer.

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