A Chicken Run sequel is like an admission of defeat from Aardman Animations, as is the upcoming Wallace and Gromit film. They seem to have accepted that they have nowhere else to go and nothing else to say and so have no choice but to relive their now-brief glories, every day more outnumbered by years of mediocrity. Dawn of the Nugget shows no trace of inspiration and makes no attempt to prove itself or anything else; it’s like the kind of sequel that used to get made a year or two later (rather than 23), coasting off of its predecessor’s hype and itself little more than a slightly bigger and slightly worse (more than slightly, in this case) echo. As the trailer so helpfully and bluntly puts it: “Last time we broke out of a chicken farm. Well, this time… we’re breaking in.”
This time, however, the characters are reduced to something less than echoes; shorn of even their one-note eccentricities, they are turned to cut-outs behind which dialogue on the level of “Our island paradise just got a little paradise-ier” and “That doesn’t look so bad. Oh, that looks so bad” can be read (as you can imagine, a giggle is seldom imminent). Worst of all are the film’s poultry leads: Ginger is now dull and conservative while Rocky is annoying and castrated, and both are performed by new voice actors (one for a better reason than the other) with less than zero charisma (Thandiwe Newton and Zachary Levi, respectively).
Dawn of the Nugget recaptures the first film more accurately — though not exactly in a way it’s likely anyone was asking for — by replicating some shots almost exactly. But without doing much to draw attention to this approach, it instead merely creates a vague and overwhelming sense of familiarity. Perhaps it’s better to have a movie where characters say “here we go again” than one where they reflect on the legacy of Chicken Run, or whatever it is Across the Spider-Verse was about.
What the film resembles more than anything is a straight-to-DVD Disney sequel from the ’90s or 2000s, where the next generation of characters relieve their parents’ story (see: The Lion King II, Lady and the Tramp II, Peter Pan II, etc.) with some meaningless inversion. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel wanted to leave the sea for the land, so it is in The Little Mermaid II that Ariel’s daughter wants to leave the land for the sea. In Chicken Run, Ginger wanted to escape the farm for an island getaway, so in Chicken Run II, Ginger’s daughter, Molly, wants to escape the island getaway for a farm. Realistically, straight-to-streaming is often the modern equivalent of straight-to-DVD: the place where films, even ones much better than this, are turned to junk thrown into the content grinder (though this is receiving a limited one-week theatrical run first).
Aardman lost their magic when their clay lost its tangibility. Their films once felt tactile and handmade, but now everything is so clean and perfect that they’ve moved from the inherent excitement of 2D animation, the pure joy of seeing something lifeless (a drawing or, in this case, clay) brought to life, to the technical achievements of 3D animation, where wonder comes mostly in theory and detail often replaces imagination. And in a way, Dawn of the Nugget almost feels like it’s made out of digital clay. The most stark example of its lifelessness and dis-inspiration comes when Molly runs away from her home and into a pale imitation of the iconic forest scene from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs where a tree very literally looks a bit like a scary face and a bush shakes a little.
But this antiseptic quality is almost used to good effect by Funland Farms — where Molly and the friend she finds along the way, Frizzle, end up trapped — hiding its cruelty behind the facade of a smiling chicken in the very bucket they’ll soon be served in. Inside is a brightly-lit little utopia with fake hills and mini-golf and skies painted on the walls in clear, uh, homage to The Truman Show. The idea is a little muddled by the fact that the chickens are literally brainwashed rather than being numbed by shallow pleasures and false freedom — or, indeed, that the farm bothers at all behind closed doors — but, in essence, it’s right to notice the ways that meat-eating has been hidden behind brittle and convenient fantasies like this one.
But the film ultimately plays into that abstraction because it never shows the violence behind it. When Mrs. Tweedy (yes, she’s back, don’t worry about it) sends a chicken to die, they walk offstage and appear suddenly as a perfect bucket of fried nuggets. Even in the climax, set inside the machine, we see little more than a vague red void and hear naught but the general and not too pointed sounds of gears or blades. Meanwhile, other parts of the farm look like a generic Bond villain lair — reflecting a kind of evil that has no relation to real life — rather than engaging in the first movie’s much more loaded comparison to a prisoner of war camp, or something even worse.
All of this alongside a Save the Cat! screenplay (all phoney Hollywood rules and little else) makes for a totally frictionless and stakes-less film where there is only time for motion, similar to any number of other films that patronize their child audience. It’s impossible to imagine Dawn of the Nugget, which takes place almost entirely in the flattening light of the midday sun, killing off a character in a violent way that this audience, while not exactly seeing, is made to explicitly understand and are left in the emotional weight of. Any flashback or flickering memory of the first Chicken Run makes for an embarrassing comparison, and that was a film, it’s worth noting, from a studio already in decline. But it’s been a long time since then, and Aardman has fallen so much further. All of their human thumbprints have now been wiped away, replaced by the cold, clean edges of factory production.
DIRECTOR: Sam Fell; CAST: (voices) Zachary Levi, Thandiwe Newton, Imelda Staunton, Nick Mohammad, Bella Ramsey; DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix; IN THEATERS: December 8; STREAMING: December 15; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 37 min.