The Key Ingredients of a Great Animated Bird Movie

By  · Published on April 11th, 2014

It’s the weekend of Rio 2. Of bright colors and Latin pop and Bruno Mars deciding he can act. And birds – big birds, small birds, bright birds, scheming Jermaine Clement birds. Rio 2 is the latest in a long tradition of bird-themed animated films; a tradition that dates back all the way to Disney’s early shorts like Chicken Little and The Ugly Duckling, and the feature-length The Three Caballeros.

Then, sixty years of almost nothing.

Once the digital age brought about a slew of new animated features, birds returned en masse. Our new heroes sported ruffled feathers and powerful wingspans. They also choked our cinemas to death with so many forgettable animated bird flicks. Surf’s Up, Happy Feet, Valiant, Free Birds and so forth. The future is dotted with more of the same with Storks, Angry Birds and The Penguins of Madagascar all planning to invade theaters in the next year or two.

Now, this whole idea – that the “animated bird movie” is actually a thing, and a thing worth discussing, at that – may seem weirdly specific and potentially insane. It sort of is. But it works, and there’s actually a way to properly dissect a bird-centric cartoon. You quarter it into four distinct pieces; four categories that can be used to identify and analyze any animated bird flick. Categories that, when fulfilled, ensure the movie in question is a Chicken Run and not a Free Birds.

Use Birds to Say Something About Birds

Bird movies will have birds in them. Duh. But are those birds mere stand-ins for a cavalcade of star voice talents (Bruno Mars!) or are they here to say something about real feathered wildlife? Start with the grand poobah of this strange, tiny genre: Chicken Run.

Its chickens, like real chickens, are dumb and suitably plump. They also suffer in captivity, wiling away their days waiting around to be plucked and stuffed, a mindset that slowly erodes their fragile chicken minds. Says lead hen Ginger, “the fences aren’t just ‘round the farm! They’re up here, in your heads!” Meanwhile, the farmers in charge care about profit over chicken care, and would gladly splatter the lot of ’em if it means a slight uptick in revenue (remember, Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy don’t upgrade to pie merchants out of necessity; they already pull in a small profit, but chicken pies pull in big profits). So it’s out with the egg farming, and in with a gigantic chicken-murdering machine. The message is clear. Farming = bad, bird lives = good.

It’s a common theme in any good animated chicken movie, of which there are precisely two. The other is Leafie: A Hen into the Wild, released in 2011 to much fanfare and moolah in its native Korea, but barely glimpsed to the English-speaking world. Like Chicken Run, its protagonist (the eponymous Leafie) is a hen living a stifling existence in someone’s henhouse. Unlike Chicken Run, Leafie goes the extra mile in making the hens’ lives look utterly miserable. They’re stuffed into tiny cages, necks poking out just far enough to reach a giant, automated feed trough. The birds’ necks are rubbed raw and featherless from the exertion and the cramped quarters. It’s one of the least fun things you can see in an animated movie (other than grisly death, urine and feces, but don’t worry, Leafie’s got those, too). The look into the henhouse doesn’t last long, but it gets the point across just as well as Chicken Run did.

Now for a film that doesn’t quite master the same material: Free Birds. Same opening. Birds in captivity, captivity bad, freedom good. But what Free Birds does is minimal. It’s essentially the same “Turkeys sure are stupid” joke repeated ad nauseum.

The area is lush and green, the facilities kept neat and tidy, the turkeys a bunch of jackasses who’re all smiles up until axe meets neck. That Owen Wilson’s turkeytagonist Reggie must save all turkeys from their annual November demise feels like a plot point and nothing more. Later on, at least, we get a glimpse of a more ominous turkey farm and little boost in motivation. But it’s all for naught when the film’s final solution is swapping out that Thanksgiving Turkey for a Thanksgiving delivery pizza. According to Free Birds, killing turkeys is bad, but killing countless pigs and sausage-izing them to make pizza more delicious is A-OK. Pigs are assholes, I guess.

Use Birds to Say Something About People

The natural counterpoint to rule #1 is, naturally, to use birds to make a point about those who are not birds. Leafie is one giant adoption metaphor – our wayward hen, having left the barn, comes upon a duck egg and raises it as her own. Cue criticism from the entire animal kingdom. She’s a chicken! She belongs on a farm (a farm beholden to its own class system, mind you), not in the wild, and she certainly can’t raise a duck that can both fly and swim, when as a chicken she is capable of neither. All the other animals in her strange pond/apartment complex with its otter/landlord want her out. But of course, Leafie stays, and proves them all wrong because adoptive mothers love their children just as much as DNA-matching mothers, and also because her name is in the title of the movie.

Chicken Run, like every terrible blurb in the trailer for an Oscar nominee, is a “triumph of the human spirit.” The chickens are freedom and the farmers are imprisoned, and ultimately freedom must allegorically prevail. Also because Chicken Run is a fairly spot-on spoof of The Great Escape, it’s the Allied POWs persevering over their Nazi captors and the greatest good triumphing over the most disgusting evil. Most important, though, is Chicken Run’s assertion that a camp full of stir-crazy women will lose their goddamn minds over a pre-racist-meltdown Mel Gibson.

Free Birds offers little about the human condition, other than the sound advice to not eat turkey and to eat Chuck E. Cheese pizza instead. Yes, it’s specifically Chuck E. Cheese’s pizza, a fact made clear when the characters all extoll its virtues and parade logo-stamped pizza boxes in front of the screen like their paychecks depended on it. But like its turkeys, the human characters are all caricatures. Some are hungry and skinny, some are fat and greedy, some, like the villainous pilgrim turkey hunter Myles Standish, harbor ill will against all birdkind for basically no reason. But Standish eventually gets his comeuppance, being sucked into a time warp and erased from history in the film’s final act. This, of course, renders the vilification of Standish (a real-life Pilgrim who is in many a history book) all the more bizarre and unnecessary.

Use Birds Within the Conflict of Man vs. Nature

Boiled down to their barest essentials, narrative conflict exists in three forms. Man vs. Self, Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature. Chances are, any animated bird film will probably contain both a “man” and a “nature,” so we might as well slap a “vs.” between the two and say something of meaning.

Leafie sides unequivocally with nature. There are no positives to the farm world. The animals who live there are stupid, prattling fools caked in their own urine and feces (I wish that weren’t true, but no, you’ll see many a yellow feather in Leafie).

The humans themselves are no better. The one human in the film, upon seeing a wild duck enter his farm, cackles like Mr. Burns and reaches for a pair of scissors to try and hack the wings from this once proud, free waterfowl. Sure, people need protein as part of their diet, but Leafie ain’t having it. If man is to struggle against nature, he will ultimately conquer it and bend it under his will. Nature is better off on its own, a point hammered in as Leafie kills off character after character, illustrating each death as sad, but an inevitable part of the food chain. Death by farmer is a monstrous crime, but death by sly and vicious weasel is the way of all things.

With Chicken Run, the end result is the same (mankind and chickenkind should stay far apart), but it’s the conflict itself that’s most of the fun. Man and nature have their very own arms race, with one building a colossal chicken pot pie machine, the other building a chicken-shaped airplane.

Note that it’s not enough for the chickens to airplane themselves to freedom. They also manage to destroy the opposing armament in the process. Gravy pressure is serious business. “Man vs. nature” also includes Chicken Run’s feminine wiles. The many mother hens fight for their right to actually be mothers, in the outside world where egg nor chicken is consumed as food. Mrs. Tweedy fights using her “woman’s touch,” the slogan on her pies, and her way of making as much money (and killing as many chickens) as possible.

Some animated bird films may skip this entirely. A Surf’s Up or Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole might exist in a world without humans, where birds somehow shoot documentary films and smith things out of metal. If done with care, filmmakers might sub in a different conflict for that key “man vs. bird” one. But without humans, the natural world of the birds becomes a little less natural, and a little more fantastic. Taken to the extent of something like Surf’s Up (a surf mockumentary with birds swapped in), are the birds really birds once they’re surfing and filmmaking and behaving exactly like humans? Or are they just birds for birds’ sake, used to prop up an animated flick with some cartoony feathered characters? Is this digging too deep into a kids movie about surfing penguins? Almost certainly, but then, that’s kind of what this whole piece is about.

Use Birds Because Birds Can Fly

Flying is the one thing birds lord over us with their smug beaked faces. Which is why most animated films are about flightless birds. For every Rio, there’s ten about turkeys, chickens and penguins (and even Rio was about a bird that should be able to fly, but can’t). The penguin ones also have a tendency to double down on inability – not only can penguins not fly, but they can’t dance right (Happy Feet) or surf right (Surf’s Up) either. It’s a simple, instantly understandable motivation. All birds should fly, but some were just born with wings too small and butts too large. Thus, a potent sense of inadequacy is born. When Chicken Run’s Ginger looks up at a V of airborne geese and sighs, we understand her pain. We humans feel the same way.

One of the reasons Chicken Run is the grand poobah of animated bird films is in all the ways flight factors in to its chicken’s journey. The big escape is flying, first via wing, and when that doesn’t work, by plane. What supposedly makes Rocky (Gibson’s rooster) so special to the ladies is that he can fly, and his great secret is that he can’t. Fowler, the crotchety old farm rooster, served in the air force. His prized possession is a pilot wings pin. Nearly every step the narrative takes has to do with someone trying to fly or wanting to fly or actually flying. The swing tune everyone dances to in the hen house? “Flip Flop and Fly,” sung by Ellis Hall. Everywhere.

But the chickens in Chicken Run actually learn to fly. Sure it’s by plane, but it still counts as far as a satisfying conclusion goes.

Leafie’s story is about accepting that she can’t fly and she never will. Her surrogate duck son can, and he’ll engage in a long and arduous duck race that may overstay its welcome by a minute or two. All Leafie can do is stand on the ground and cheer him on. She’s learned to accept her shortcomings, as has Wanderer, the mallard who keeps giving Leafie smoldering glances through his tousled duck-hair. Wanderer is the film’s tortured soul – so tortured because one of his wings is shot, limiting both his freedom and his duck manhood (duckhood?).

Then, there’s Valiant. Valiant, unlike all these other films, actually has birds that can fly and do fly, a rare occurrence that’s completely wasted on a film like Valiant. Ewan McGregor and Ricky Gervais are British carrier pigeons serving the Royal Air Force in WWII, sending vital messages across Europe and fighting a band of Nazi falcons. The obvious metaphor – that birds battling each other in WWII are a substitute for pilots fighting dogfights – is completely ignored. Don’t worry, though,because Valiant puts its birds inside a plane during a dogfight, as if that was somehow close enough. As a testament to how tone-deaf the film is, the pigeons of Valiant celebrate a successful mission with drinking and swing-dancing… to the sounds of R&B sensations Mis-Teeq.

These aren’t hard and fast rules. Rio managed to follow all four and turned out well, but not that well. But so long as there’s an animated bird flick market, someone may need a way to analyze CGI birds that do things CGI birds don’t normally do. Keep that in mind, just in case you find yourself in front of a Rio or a Penguins of Madagascar in the near future.

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