There's something about chickens, at least in the minds of the brilliant stop-motion animators Peter Lord and Nick Park, whose whimsical notion of an all-poultry escape movie has resulted in one of the funniest and most delightfully inventive animated pictures in years. Chicken Run, the debut feature from Aardman Animations, British creators of the cult duo Wallace and Gromit and much more, is the rare family film that offers equal pleasure for both young audiences and their elders; its sheer cleverness will enchant and tickle any viewer of any age.

Aardman's chosen form of animation, moving three-dimensional models one painstaking frame at a time, goes all the way back to the teens (and the great, neglected Polish-Lithuanian animator Ladislaw Starewicz), but in the modern era, it's largely been eclipsed by hand-drawn and computerized cartooning. But stop-motion, also kept alive today by the gifted Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach), has its own singular charms-nothing, not even the computer-generated wonders of Pixar, is quite as invitingly tactile as the characters hand-crafted by artists like the Aardman gang.

With Chicken Run, those artists are working on a much bigger scale, manipulating a huge cast of easily flustered birds. The fun comes from watching their chickens enact classic prison-escape movie scenarios; Lord and Park have clearly studied such landmarks of the genre as Stalag 17 and The Great Escape. The smartest and feistiest of the flock is one Ginger, whose many failed efforts to fly the coop have left her more determined than ever to escape the clutches of the hard-driving Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy. Her hopes rise with the airborne arrival of Rocky, a cocky American rooster who is forced to hide out on the farm after he injures his wing. Ginger recruits Rocky to teach her and the others to fly, little knowing that Rocky is really a circus novelty act who gets shot out of a cannon nightly. Matters become much more urgent when Mrs. Tweedy hits on a scheme to increase her profits by converting her farm from egg production to the manufacture of chicken-meat pies. Headed for the dinner table, Ginger and her clucking cohorts hatch a desperate plan.

Ginger excepted, the chickens in Chicken Run live up to their name, inspiring a barrage of sight gags as these half-baked heroes try to avoid becoming fully baked entrees. Karey Kirkpatrick's screenplay also has fun with the romantic-comedy staple of the bickering antagonists turned lovers, deftly performed by Mel Gibson as the arrogant Rocky and Julia Sawalha (the beleaguered Saffy of TV's 'Absolutely Fabulous') as Ginger. (Gibson even utters that immortal line from Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, 'I'm seen some hard-boiled eggs in my day, but you're 20 minutes.') Just as Park's Wallace and Gromit films are crammed with movie references, Chicken Run affectionately salutes its predecessors, with special nods to DreamWorks boss Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark (a tour de force escape from a giant pie-making machine) and E.T.

Chicken Run's droll script is more than matched by its visual wit and artistry. Lord and Park oversaw work on 30 sets simultaneously, and the amount of detail packed into every frame is mind-boggling. Production designer Phil Lewis and art director Tim Farrington deserve special mention for their antic sets, and Dave Alex Riddett's lighting is an invaluble part of the illusion. Aardman's wondrous feature debut should be making a run for the box office all summer long.

--Kevin Lally