By any metric, 23 years is a long time to wait for a sequel to Chicken Run, even when you factor in the fiendishly slow gestation of Aardman Animations’ meticulous stop-motion process. Surprisingly, it still feels fresh, not just because of the spring-clean of the core voice cast — Mel Gibson being the highest-profile casualty, lopped off as the “lone free-ranger” Rocky — but because, in the hands of director Sam Fell and his writing team, Dawn of The Nugget delivers a cleverly modern kind of family entertainment that, while it works to a formula, never feels written by committee.
The levels of peril it broaches are quite high, and may be disturbing for younger viewers, but the high-wire act it pulls off is to cover a very dark subject in an almost giddily Dayglo way that, this year at least, fills the unforeseen and indeed once unimaginable space between Barbie and The Zone of Interest.
Given that the lifespan of a chicken is about ten years tops, it’s fair to say that real time is not a factor here. A few years have passed, however, since Ginger (Thandiwe Newton) is now with Rocky (Zachary Levi) and has given birth to Molly (Bella Ramsey), whose transition from egg to a curious young person is covered with Up-style economy. A brief black-and-white recap recalls the horrors that Ginger and Rocky went through — their time on a chicken farm, trying to escape the clutches of owner Melisha Tweedy and avoiding ending up in a home-made pie — but the mood is gently optimistic. “Those days are over,” says Ginger, whose kick-ass heroism has been firmly established in flashback. “We’ve got our happy ending and we’re living it.”
She observes this from the island idyll where the players of the original Chicken Run have since washed up, away from human eyes and thus human interference. But when trees start being felled on the mainland it becomes clear — literally clear — that something is happening, since it exposes a very busy road and a procession of trucks that are destined for a place called Fun-Land Farms. To the surprise of the community, Ginger has no curiosity about what is happening. “We can’t venture into a world that finds chickens so… delicious,” she says.
But this is something she and Rocky end up having to do: Molly, who has grown up fast and become curious about the world, wonders why she is forbidden to leave the island, especially when the allure of Fun-Land Farms — advertised on the trucks by glossy images of chickens giving a sassy two-thumbs-up — seems to open up a whole new horizon. So she runs, or rather rows away, making friends along the way with Frizzle (Josie Sedgwick-Davies), a charismatic Scouse hen who, like Molly, thinks there’s an avian Shangri-La that they’re both missing out on. Slightly older than Molly, Frizzle has escaped from a farm where she thinks of humans as waiting staff, just there to bring food. By contrast, she expects Fun-Land Farms to be cooler than “a penguin’s toenail”, a simile that baffles Molly, who knows neither. And when they get there, it really is: a poultry wonderland that delivers everything the ads promise.
The twist this time round is that the chicken farm is cosy and alluring. It’s a smart allusion to the anthropomorphic and cartoonish way that meat is marketed nowadays (and also where the film’s odd and kind-of-terrible title comes in), but Molly wants in on it. In the meantime, however, Ginger and Rocky are hot on her heels. From bitter experience, they know that Fun-Land Farms is likely to be the very opposite of fun. It is, in fact, a fiercely protected, state-of-the-art fortress, and this time they are faced with the proposition of having to break in rather than out.
While the shadow of The Great Escape loomed large over the first film, Dawn of the Nugget goes a little further into the ’60s, positing a groovier world that, in its design, recalls Ken Adam’s labyrinthine Bond sets, Gerry Anderson’s futuristic Supermarionation, and even the pop-culture paranoia of the cult British TV series The Prisoner. That, though, is in the eye of the beholder; there’s less of an emphasis on in-jokes than you might expect from Aardman, and the film is stronger for it. (Mind you, there is definitely a playful Mission: Impossible vibe, a mood that is bolstered by Harry Gregson-Williams’ knowing and infectiously catchy score.)
From a present-day perspective, however, the action more than holds up in the Marvel era, juggling several competing storylines and throwing in a surprise guest star to keep things interesting. But it also keeps to the sincere moral values of the original — family, friendship, community — and whenever the film pauses to remind us of all that (which it does, several times), it’s never patronizing, and, even better, those scenes are mercifully brief. Neither does it evangelize, given its potential as a platform for animal rights issues and all the attendant eco-politics that go with that. In fact, it’s quite the paradox: never has a film made chickens seem so fun, so intelligent and yet still so very, very tasty.