Eskasoni couple behind Mi'kmaw Chicken Run get shoutout from film's co-director
'I think it was very visionary for both Tom and Carol Anne to do this,' says Peter Lord
The co-director of the British animated film Chicken Run says he was thrilled to discover his movie has been re-imagined in Mi'kmaw by a Nova Scotia family determined to keep their language alive.
Peter Lord wrote and co-directed the beloved film from 2000 about a band of chickens trying to escape their fate at a chicken farm.
When he learned there was a version overdubbed in Mi'kmaw he reached out to the creators, Tom and Carol Anne Johnson in Eskasoni, N.S.
The Johnson's version has become a hit in its own right and helped countless kids and adults learn the oral language.
"I think it was very visionary for both Tom and Carol Anne to do this," Lord, who co-founded U.K.-based Aardman Animations, told CBC Radio's Mainstreet this week.
"The one thing we never thought about at any stage while we were making that film was ... to give encouragement to the preservation of an endangered language. We were not thinking about that and so to hear that was just thrilling."
LISTEN | Carol Anne and Tom Johnson meet co-director Peter Lord:
The Johnsons spent many long hours working to translate the film in their garage turned recording studio. A decade later, the overdubbed film has travelled around the Maritimes and they still get requests from people who want to watch it.
The couple has received messages from fans since they shared their story with Mainstreet. Now they're working on finding new ways to produce more content to promote the Mi'kmaw language.
"I think people need to see the language," Tom said. "It needs to be heard and it needs to be spoken and these types of mediums provide that opportunity where children can take interest and start speaking the language."
He said he's been speaking with Chief Leroy Denny about creating a multimedia language institute in Eskasoni and an animator in the U.K. has expressed interest in helping with some projects.
"We're just in the early stages and we're looking for equipment and gear … so hopefully we'll have some new content in the future," he said.
Carol Anne said she was delighted and a bit star struck to get a shout-out from Lord last week.
The family contacted Dreamworks, which owns the rights to Chicken Run, many years ago asking for permission to overdub the film but never heard back. While she considered that a good sign, Carol Anne said it didn't stop her from worrying now and then.
<a href="https://twitter.com/CarolAnneJay?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@CarolAnneJay</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/cartom36?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@cartom36</a> Hi there. I just heard about your version of Chicken Run in Mi'kmaw. As co-director of the original film may I say: Congratulations! What a great project and carry on the great work.—@PeteLordAardman
"It was almost like a validation, really, a validation of our work and the reasons behind why we did it in the first place," she said.
The family's overdubbed version is not a literal translation, but it tries to capture the essence of what the characters said while also throwing in humour and references that Mi'kmaw speakers would enjoy.
Tom said only about 20 per cent of the roughly 4,500 people in Eskasoni — "the last language hot spot" — still speak Mi'kmaw.
"We're at the very tail end and we're trying to do whatever we can to preserve it," he said.
A family connection
Canadian film producer Jake Eberts also worked on Chicken Run and would have been "so moved and touched" by the Johnson's version, said his daughter, Lindsay Eberts.
She said her dad, who was born in Montreal and died in 2012, dedicated much of his career to promoting Indigenous perspectives through the films he worked on, such as Dances with Wolves, Black Robe, and The Education of Little Tree.
"I think all of the films would be treated and seen very differently now, but he was one of the first people who was really able to ... include stories that were largely about Indigenous cultures and people and how poorly they had been treated," Eberts said.
She said she felt compelled to thank the Johnsons for their work because she knows it's what her dad would have done.
"I got so emotional because it's so creative the way that Tom and Carol Anne have thought to gain awareness. It's brilliant — go in with something that people absolutely love and then show them how much richer it can be in another beautiful language," said Eberts.
She lives in Quebec and hopes to visit the Johnsons in Cape Breton when travel restrictions allow.
For the Johnsons, their foray into voice acting began as a way to bring comfort and joy to their young son after his twin sister died many years ago.
LISTEN | Carol Anne and Tom Johnson explain their overdub of Chicken Run:
Chicken Run has since become an important part of their family history, as it has for Ebert's family.
Lord said learning about the Johnson's version of Chicken Run has been a bright spot during a dire time in the U.K. with cases of the coronavirus surging.
"Here was this story that was just a great, charming, encouraging, inspiring, feel-good story, so what was not to love?" he said.
He's now working on making Chicken Run 2 and Tom said he'll be in touch to continue the collaboration.
With files from CBC's Mainstreet