The 2000 Aardman animated film Chicken Run is about as close to a perfect family film as you can get. The Great Escape-inspired frolic from Nick Park and Peter Lord about a brood of chickens escaping from a POW-style chicken farm still holds up 23 years later. A personal favourite from my youth, I sat down and gave it a rewatch in preparation for the new sequel and it is still as charming and enjoyable to watch as an adult. Enough time has passed now to classify it as an animated classic.
But how does Sam Fell’s sequel Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget hold up in comparison? Let’s just say, set your egg-specatations low. While not a disaster, this long-awaited follow-up fails to recapture the magic of its predecessor.
Our story starts with Ginger and Rocky having settled down in the utopian chicken sanctuary that they fled to in the previous film. Years have passed, the commune is thriving and they are now parents to an inquisitive and adventurous spring chicken called Molly (Bella Ramsey) who just like her mother longs for freedom beyond her immediate surroundings.
Molly’s curiosity takes her to the Fun-Land Farm factory. A building that resembles a Bond villain’s headquarters on the outside. But on the inside Molly and her new friend Frizzle (Josie Sedgwick-Davies) are taken to a colourful chicken playground that looks like a hybrid of Barbie Land and the staircase corridors from Squid Game – complete with pink slides and all-you-can-eat feeding stations. But once the veneer of excitement wears off, Molly soon discovers she’s being held captive and the owners of Fun-Land Farm have sinister plans for her and the rest of the imprisoned chickens.
So it’s up to her mum Ginger and the rest of the gang to break into the facility to bust her out. As the tagline says; last time they broke out, this time they’re breaking in.
Should we be that surprised that the new Chicken Run film isn’t all that great though? There were early warning signs that the sequel was in jeopardy. Like an old car that has been stripped for parts, Nugget is lacking so much of what made the first one so beloved.
For starters, Nick Park and Peter Lord aren’t as involved this time around. While they serve as executive producers, their lack of contribution to the script is noticeable. Karey Kirkpatrick has returned for screenwriting duties alongside John O’Farrell and Rachel Tunnard. But instead of prioritising fresh material, they fall into the trap of relying far too heavily on old nostalgic references and quotes from the previous film to get a quick laugh. Bab’s iconic “I don’t want to be a pie” line is rejigged and tweaked within the first ten minutes. It may be familiar but it isn’t half as funny. It just feels lazy.
And then there’s the questionable decision to invite some but not all of the voice actors back to reprise their roles. The voice casting of the first was pitch-perfect but with the exception of Imelda Staunton (Bunty), Jane Horrocks (Babs) And Lynn Ferguson (Mac), several members of the original poultry cast weren’t invited back for the sequel. We can understand the argument to not have controversial Mel Gibson return to voice Rocky (replaced in this film by Zachary Levi) but why recast the rats Nick and Fletcher when Timothy Spall and Phil Daniels were available?
But the absence that truly stings the most is Julia Sawalha who voiced the resourceful and inspiring protagonist Ginger in the original.
The decision to not bring her back is a puzzling one and seems beyond arbitrary. Sawalha has been replaced by Thandiwe Newton and while she does a fine enough job, she does lack a certain plucky tenacity and resilience that made Sawalha’s Ginger such a great leader. The reason Sawalha received for her exclusion was “her voice sounded ‘too old’ and that they wanted a younger actress to reprise the role”. A nonsensical and ageist excuse if ever there was one, seeing as Newton is only a mere 4 years younger than Sawalha and true-to-real-life, Ginger herself has also aged in the film.
Credit to the writers for trying something different. Having the sequel be a rescue mission rather than a jailbreak was an interesting change of direction. Dawn of the Nugget is not without its fun moments – a chorus of Yorkshire-accented chickens doing a rendition of Cliff Richards’ Summer Holiday was a hilarious highlight. But frustratingly too much is missing of what made the first such a winner.
It’s not just beloved voice talents that the sequel has lost, the animation style has had an upgrade – but new doesn’t always necessarily mean better. The original Chicken Run film was made in 2000 and primarily used the old-school claymation method of animation. It had stop-motion characters moving around physical miniature models. There was CGI used in the film but it was more used for refining certain shots – it wasn’t used as the standard like it is now.
Today the advancement of CGI has made it much easier to create CGI backgrounds that look like Aardman plasticine backdrops. But the human eye is trained to know the difference and while the new method may be cheaper and less time-consuming, the downside is the sequel lacks the tactile sense of world-building that made the first feel so lived in. It’s what gave the Tweedy farm its grim Auschwitz vibe whereas, in Dawn of the Nugget, the backdrops look more artificial.
What also made the original Chicken Run so special was its quintessentially British keep-calm-and-carry-on sensibilities. Chicken Run was inspired by M*A*S*H, The Great Escape and Stalag 17 – films very much centred around WW2 but Nugget is more akin to a modern slick Mission Impossible film than any of those classics. The original was also very selective in its music choices as to not make it sound too modern. However, Nugget does the opposite and embraces pop songs from the likes of Paloma Faith which makes this outing feel like a distant third-generation cousin rather than a close sibling-sequel.
The first film was a fun-for-the-whole family adventure but it didn’t shy away from having some darker and more mature moments. The stakes were set almost immediately with Edwina being taken to “the chop” after she can’t lay any more eggs – an emotionally sombre moment that you don’t often see in kids’ films. In Nugget another chicken meets their fate but this time it’s played instead for laughs. As it’s geared more towards just the kiddiwinks, the emotional weight of the stakes is far less substantial.
Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget has fleeting moments of inventive greatness – but that’s all they are really; “nuggets” whereas the first film was a full bird with all the trimmings. This meal is enjoyable enough but you wouldn’t go back for seconds.
Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget has its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival and will be released on Netflix December 15.