Realism and the Prison Break: A Man Escaped and Chicken Run

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By Emil Sohlberg

A Man Escaped and Chicken Run, though both centered around prison escapes, have strong thematic differences. A Man Escaped (1956) tells the story of Fontaine, a French resistance member who escapes from a Nazi prison to avoid execution. Chicken Run, not a live-action film but shot with claymation instead, tells the story of chickens who escape from a chicken farm, their own version of a prison, before they are all killed and baked into pies. At face value, Chicken Run is bright and colorful, while A Man Escaped is darker and more cerebral, but these different feelings stem from numerous stylistic choices. These feelings are ultimately achieved through the films leaning away from and towards realism; in terms of sound and storytelling A Man Escaped is more realistic than Chicken Run, but despite being animated, Chicken Run’s use of space is more realistic than that of A Man Escaped. A Man Escaped highlights the quiet determination that perseveres under stifling conditions, while Chicken Run delivers a more bombastic, inspirational take on escape.

First, the sparse use of sound design in A Man Escaped supports realism and serves to highlight the tedium of being in prison, while Chicken Run’s uplifting score serves to inspire the audience instead. For the majority of A Man Escaped, the audience only ever hears exactly what Fontaine hears. The audience becomes accustomed to the sounds of a train going by, and of a guard clanking his keys up the stairs. When Fontaine disguises the sound of him scratching at his door, with a cough, the audience understands the need for this, as aurally, they are in the same place as Fontaine. There are few treats for the audience in A Man Escaped’s soundscape, because such treats would not be in a prison’s soundscape either. The few exceptions only highlight this, such as when classical music plays during the prisoners’ daily opportunity to leave their cells. Though they are doing the unglamourous work of dumping their toilet buckets and getting cleaned up, the music shows how valuable this time is for them, as a brief respite from their isolation. By comparison, Chicken Run’s opening sequence is non stop sound, with a musical montage over Ginger, the de facto leader of the chickens, and her countless failed escape attempts. A musical montage is inherently dissimilar to how the audience perceives reality, but that is not the priority here. The music playing during this sequence highlights Ginger’s determination and resolve, allowing the audience to recognize the repeating motifs at triumphant points throughout the rest of the movie, such as when Ginger and her accomplice Rocky escape a pie machine, sabotaging it in the process. Both of the movies use sound to indicate how the audience should be feeling, with the focus or lack of focus on non-diegetic sound being the key point.

Chicken Run’s opening sequence

doorchiselFontaine chisels at the door

Next, in A Man Escaped, the use of space and location to reveal little information about the prison gives the film a claustrophobic and oppressive feel, while in Chicken Run, beautiful claymation establishes the world so vividly that the possibility of escape feels real, tangible, and inspirational. Much of A Man Escaped is spent in Fontaine’s jail cell, a small room that the audience has plenty of time to get familiar with. Unlike the use of sound, where the audience hears what Fontaine hears, the audience actually knows much less about the spatiality of the prison than Fontaine does, revealed when Fontaine makes plans to navigate areas that the audience has never even seen. It is in this manner that A Man Escape is leaning away from realism, as even in prison would the audience come to learn its layout. Instead, the audience, when shown locations beyond Fontaine’s cell, only knows them in a disjointed manner; they are exposed to too few shots of travel between them, and are unable to put together any kind of cohesive big picture. This results in a sense of general unease, contributing to the film’s atmosphere. Interestingly, Chicken Run, not in spite of but rather because of its use of claymation, feels far more grounded in an actual world. Chicken Run operates on two scales, human-scale when the farmer husband and wife, the Tweedys, are interacting, but primarily on chicken-scale, when the chickens are the focus. There are several impressive shots in the film that connect these two scales together, such as when Ginger and Rocky are hiding from Mrs. Tweedy, that really give the audience an understanding of the size of the world. This connects thematically to the chickens’ motivation, introduced by a heartfelt speech from Ginger directed to her fellow chickens early in the film–to live somewhere green, with no farmers, where they can be free. Escape for the chickens is as much about reaching this place, as it is about leaving their current location. This motivation is far more impactful when the audience accepts their world as being real and expansive. Such acceptance is not a priority in A Man Escaped however, because getting anywhere specific is hardly even mentioned by Fontaine. What is really critical is just getting out and not being executed. This is why the limited exposure to space works in that film; the outside world would only take away from the isolation and desperation the audience is supposed to be feeling.

hidingGinger and Rocky hide from Mrs. Tweedy

incellFontaine sits in his jail cell

Chicken Run’s realism here cannot be described without also giving credit to the level of detail of the animation style, as well as the tangible physicality of the claymation medium. There are many details that appear exactly as they would in reality, such as one character’s glasses magnifying their eyes, or the fuzz on another character’s sweater. Close up shots reveal the rough texture of bricks and wood, and a coal bin has the exact gritty appearance of rusted metal. In one incredible shot, Mrs. Tweedy spins a metal saw with her fingers, and her face can be seen in the reflection of the saw as it’s spinning. Since the set actually exists in a physical form, there is realism in lighting as well. The chicken farm can be exposed to controlled lighting depending on weather or time of day, that comes across as far more sophisticated and true to life than an audience might normally expect from an animated feature. Interestingly, though A Man Escaped has a high level of realism on the basis of being filmed in reality, in some ways it feels less real than Chicken Run, due to the almost dreamlike unease stemming from its narrow spatial scope.

goodlightingSunlight on a cloudy day

sweaterfuzzMr Tweedy’s fuzzy sweater

spinningsawMrs. Tweedy’s reflection in the saw

A Man Escaped characterizes a prison escape as painstaking and methodical, with its straightforward and realistic story structure, while Chicken Run utilizes more traditional Hollywood convention to portray escape as an adventure. A Man Escaped is an unbelievably slow burn, with the majority of the film following Fontaine’s gradual progress on his escape plan. Though there are pencil confiscations and the execution of another prisoner who attempts to escape, there are no actual setbacks to the plan. One development, the introduction of his young cellmate, Jost, seems like it may be a setback should Jost prove untrustworthy, but it occurs so late in the movie and has so little effect on the plan that Jost’s very presence in the film defies expectation. Overall, A Man Escaped feels lifelike in its unpredictability, but the surprise of the film is actually how smoothly the plan goes. This is appropriate, as in reality, a prison escape is going to be the result of slow work and careful planning, that will either go off without a hitch or end with unredeemable failure. By contrast, Chicken Run has far more developments and setbacks, but they all happen at the exact places that they should in the conventional three act structure, making them feel more predictable. The result of this predictability is that the prison escape feels less like work, and more like a standard Hollywood adventure. There’s an act one inciting incident when Rocky, a circus runaway, arrives and claims to be able to teach the chickens how to fly. There is ascending action when the pie machine is delivered and destroyed, raising the stakes as the chickens learn their eventual fate. A major setback occurs at the end of act two, when Rocky reveals he cannot fly and abandons the chickens. Then there is a climax where the chickens desperately make an escape via plane. There is even a tidy denouement at the end of the film to show how happy the chickens are once they have escaped. The story never develops in a way to make the audience especially uncomfortable, as expected of a G-rated tale of escaping chickens (with the exception of one of the chickens being executed early on, which is mainly surprising due to how bleak it is, as it still functions properly as an act one inciting incident).

rockyarrivesRocky arrives

bigsetbackBig setback

Chicken Run and A Man Escaped are both excellent films revolving around prison breaks, but they are vastly different in how they regard realism in three areas. All of the choices of A Man Escaped are intended to increase tension and monotony: this means a subdued realism in sound, spatiality made more stifling through its lack of realism, and a story that is straightforward and realistic in its unpredictable predictability. All of this comes together to result in a realistic prison escape film, which feels appropriate as the story is based on real events. Chicken Run instead makes choices that are intended to be uplifting and inspirational. The non-diegetic score is thrilling and memorable, the space with real presence gives credibility to the characters’ motivations, and the storytelling follows tried-and-true methods of building the audience’s emotions.

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