| Mel Gibson, who lent his voice for a character in Chicken Run. (Reuters)
Rival chickens are heading for court in a multi-million-pound battle over who dreamed up the plot for one of the most successful animated films ever made.
The might of Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks studio is being challenged by an author in rural Sussex who claims that he, rather than Peter Lord and Nick Park, created the story on which the film Chicken Run was based.
DreamWorks and Lord’s Aardman Animations company in Bristol are the principal defendants in a copyright action lodged in England by Alan Davidson, an author whose 16 published children’s books include Escape from Cold Ditch in 1995.
Court papers served yesterday claim that Escape from Cold Ditch — the story of a hen that leads a mass, prisoner of war-type escape across the barbed wire of a chicken farm in rural England — was “bodily appropriated” for the film, released five years later.
Davidson is also initiating legal action in the US against DreamWorks, claiming millions in damages over a film that has taken almost £135 million at cinemas worldwide, plus tens of millions more in television, video and DVD sales.
Court papers lodged at Lewes county court claim a string of “striking” similarities in the plot, incidents, characters and settings in the film and Davidson’s book, which is still in print.
The children’s novel was turned into an audio book read by actress Joanna Lumley in 1996.
The claim says: “According to Nick Park — who, along with Peter Lord, is credited with producing, directing and creating the original story for Chicken Run — when Park and Lord pitched the idea to DreamWorks in January, 1996, ‘all we had was this one joke: an escape movie with chickens’.
“When the defendants released Chicken Run on June 23, 2000, however, they had much more — they had a story strikingly similar to Escape from Cold Ditch. Escape and Chicken Run are both about a group of chickens that plan and, with the aid of an outsider chicken, execute a mass escape from a chicken farm, in the tradition of and with references to, Second World War PoW escape stories.
“Each story is also a satire on inhumane farming and human greed.
“They also share numerous story events and sequences and similar dialogue. These and other similarities confirm that the defendants have bodily appropriated Davidson’s entire novel and translated it to the screen.”
The author also maintains that an offer by a Hollywood studio in 1998 to turn Escape from Cold Ditch into a feature-length, animated film was abruptly withdrawn when it was discovered that DreamWorks was working on a film with an almost identical story.
A spokesman for Aardman, where Park animated both Chicken Run and the Wallace and Gromit series, said yesterday: “We deny that there is any basis whatsoever for Mr Davidson’s claim and we intend to defend the litigation.”