Many people (this reviewer included) scoffed at the announcement of Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget. Something about the ludicrous title and 23-year hiatus gave the air of a studio in desperation, or one searching for an Oscar contender. How wrong we were. For in spite of the long wait and changes of personnel––Zachary Levi and Thandiwe Newton replace Mel Gibson and Julia Sawalha; Sam Fell replaces Nick Park and Peter Lord––this latest adventure is every bit as well-crafted, cleverly written, and stuffed with gallinaceous puns as its predecessor.
We rejoin the flock, like the cast, in much-changed circumstances. For one thing, they have built a small island paradise––it looks more like the Shire than Yorkshire––where they are free to work and roam without the threat of human intervention. There is also a lively new addition to the group: Rocky and Ginger’s chirpy chick Molly, who “has her father’s spindly legs” but is otherwise just like her mother––brave, defiant, insatiably curious. So curious, in fact, that she decides to escape from the island and embark on a journey, accompanied by ditzy Scouser Frizzle, to the invitingly named Fun-Land Farm––a high-tech facility aimed at entertaining livestock with theme park rides and carnival games so as to produce tastier nuggets.
Thus commences a dangerous break-in mission and exhilarating showdown with the facility’s owners––the fearsome Mrs. Tweedy and her “current husband,” the nutty Dr. Fry––involving snorkels, eye-scanners, and exploding robot ducks, not to mention innumerable climbs, swings, and somersaults, all of which are performed with such smoothness and vitality that one soon forgets that this is stop-motion animation (albeit with some digital assistance). Meanwhile, the jokes continue to come off, as do the movie references, which writers Karey Kirkpatrick, John O’Farrell, and Rachel Tunnard have littered throughout the film like corn feed in a chicken coop.
There is also some fine vocal work by Imelda Staunton, Lynn Ferguson, and Miranda Richardson, as well as a standout performance by Jane Horrocks as the oblivious Babs. As for the newcomers: Newton, as Ginger, is strong-willed without being sanctimonious; David Bradley gives a croaky, sympathetic Fowler; and Bella Ramsey, who is quickly becoming one of Britain’s foremost young actors, is quick-witted and ebullient as Molly. The only weak link is Zachary Levi as Rocky, but not through any fault of his own. The Lone Free Ranger, who in the first film lied about his ability to fly but more than made up for it with his good old American knowhow, is here reduced to a fumbling, bumbling dad who cannot even swat a fly without falling on his ass.
Fell’s intentions are quite clear with Dawn of the Nugget: he wants to drastically expand, rather than refine, the world of Chicken Run; to introduce new characters and locations; and to re-establish old tropes where they might have been forgotten, such as Babs’ obsession with knitting and Fowler’s tedious tales about dogfights and whiz-bangs. On all of these fronts he has eminently succeeded, though I rather suspect that those looking for another dark parable about capitalism or veganism––or whatever other -ism one can think of––will be somewhat disappointed by his treatment of the Big Themes. To such people I would only say that, in an age of The Emoji Movie and Space Jam: A New Legacy, we ought to be thankful that some big studio productions are still labors of love.
Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget premiered at the BFI London Film Festival and arrives on Netflix on December 15.