Americans have an astronomical tolerance for sentimental European takes on historical atrocities, so Jose Luis Cuerda’s Butterfly might not please the Benigni-ites. This lushly photographed portrait of a middle-class Spanish family in 1936 struggling to get along in the new republic amid the jackbooted pressures of the clergy, the army, the local crime boss, and their own traditionalism is solemn, fast-paced, and refreshingly complex. In their repressive and superstitious mountain village, the sun-dappled magic of childhood is no given; little Moncho (Manuel Lozano) is forced to skip directly from pure ignorance to horrified awareness. He must carve out the middle ground for himself in an ambiguous tangle of gratitude and betrayal.
Moncho is packed off to the local schoolhouse, where he discovers that it’s not the teacher he needs to fear but his classmates—a ruthless, naughty pack of boys. The schoolmaster, Don Gregorio (Fernando Fernan Gomez), has complete confidence in the children’s innate goodness despite the daily rigors of controlling their crude energy. The teacher’s obliviousness is a symptom and symbol of republican optimism in the future of a monarch-free Spain.
Moncho’s father, a weak-willed tailor, is also a staunch republican—he doesn’t recognize his wife’s piety for the dangerous force it is. (“She’s mystical,” he explains.) The older son, Andres (Alexis de los Santos), is a mediocre saxophone player who lucks into a gig playing with a tawdry local orchestra. As Andres discovers and is disappointed by the wonders of female nature, Don Gregorio introduces Moncho’s absorbent mind to the tiny miracles at loose in the fields—the rolled-up tongues of butterflies, the unique properties of various insects, the mating behavior of exotic birds.
Butterfly combines all the elements of the sentimental Euro period piece—quiet, big-eyed kid, dignified mentor, family strife, country in turmoil—and it telegraphs its climax shamelessly. But this is no Cinema Paradiso: Cuerda has a swift hand and an impatience for moist lingering. As the film speeds toward Don Gregorio’s disgrace and Moncho’s corruption, the grace notes that pack the corners—a nameless song from a kindly accordionist, Don Gregorio’s care of his new pinstriped suit, Moncho’s little girlfriend, Aurora, facing him fearlessly (and toplessly) during a dip in the lake while other girls flee—build a solid and incontrovertibly mournful picture of daily life. The strange, sad ending pays tribute to the resilience of young Spain and makes this little foreign film linger in a way the wistful clowns of European cinema will never achieve in their work.
If you like Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit shorts, then you’ll like Chicken Run—that’s the expectation of Park and Peter Lord, who co-directed this silly, satisfying claymation feature. It helps, too, to have a really forgiving capacity for chicken puns. It’s The Flight of the Phoenix meets The Great Escape on a dismal chicken farm in northern England, and in the tradition of The American President and A Bug’s Life, all the right jokes are made at all the right times, with little let up and no surprises except in the inventive, generous adaptation of the expected cliches to the unusual milieu.
Neither Park nor Lord nor screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick fool him- or herself into believing that chickens aren’t profoundly stupid, but as a metaphor for the discouraged soul in bondage, the complacent inanity of battery chickens couldn’t be better. Only plucky (I couldn’t resist) Ginger, voiced with crisp impatience by AbFab’s Julia Sawalha, believes that with enough ingenuity, she and her fellow hens can free themselves of a life of perpetual egg-laying, and occasional stewing, on Tweedy’s Egg Farm. The opening credit sequence tracks Ginger’s multiple escape schemes, each beginning with the unfurling of a badly sketched plan and ending with her confinement in poultry solitary, where she bangs a Brussels sprout against the wall like a feathered Steve McQueen.
Escaping is hard enough, but keeping up the spirits of the placid poultry around her seems impossible. They’re a bunch of flibbertigiblets, each with a peculiarity or specialty that seems like mere characterization until the final sequence rolls—unlike certain films I could name, whose initials are Gone in 60 Seconds, in which the abilities of each character pass for neither personality nor plot fuel. Foolish, fat, ever-knitting Babs; excitable Scot engineer Mac; harrumphing ex-RAF rooster Fowler, who has a celery stick up his butt about order and rules—they’re all thrown into a tizzy when a sexy Rhode Island Red rooster crash-lands in the pen.
That would be Rocky (Mel Gibson), a cocky Yank who calls himself “the lone free ranger” but is actually on the run from a circus troupe. Ginger agrees to hide him if Rocky will teach them how to fly, as per the circus poster that shows him soaring into space. Yes, everyone knows chickens can’t fly, but the chickens don’t seem to have heard; and among this crew, which is gifted with all those hen’s teeth that are reputed to be so scarce, as well as functioning, though rubbery, hands, anything can happen.
Except flying. Rocky seems to have reservations about his talents, but he puts the hens through their paces, while two rats—crooked peddlers—sit on egg crates snacking and making horrible puns (“Poultry in motion” is my favorite). Chicken Run spews out every cliche on the farm, from the crusty old colonel being pulled into a dance party to the “Mustn’t panic—Aaaggh!” scene to the romance-novel dynamic between sensible Ginger and the infuriatingly easygoing Rocky. (There’s even a chicken pie-in-the-face.) But Park and Lord aren’t interested in coining narrative; their challenge is to create a range of expression and believability by using clay and rubber in the shapes of cartoon chickens. And they do, with the scares and setbacks and triumphs evocatively posed and lit, the direction’s pace expanding and contracting as needed, and a meticulous attention to detail that makes this clay world solid and bustling. Even the alarm bell seems to wear the anxious grin and pingpong-ball eyes of Park’s signature creations. At a time when digital animation is breaking boundaries, Park and Lord prove that stop-motion can move forward as well. CP