“Dawn of the Nugget” has its merits.

Maciej Kaczmarski

18 December 2023

Nearly a quarter of a century after the first installment of “Chicken Run” by Peter Lord and Nick Park, the brave poultry returns to the screens. Was it worth the wait for the new adventures of Rocky, Ginger, and their feathered gang?

I saw the first part of the movie in the fall of 2000. By then, I was already a longtime fan of Aardman Animations’ productions, ever since I stumbled upon Nick Park’s short films on television in the mid-90s – “A Grand Day Out” (1989) and “The Wrong Trousers” (1993) featuring the bumbling inventor Wallace and his intelligent dog Gromit (in the Polish version, the voice of the former was provided by Krzysztof Kowalewski). I was captivated not only by the claymation world brought to life through stop-motion animation but also by the ironic humor and “Britishness” of these films. Equally wonderful were Park’s “Creature Comforts” (1989), Boris Kossmehl’s “Not Without My Handbag” (1993), and Peter Lord’s “Adam” (1992) and “Wat’s Pig” (1996). “Chicken Run” (2000) by the Lord-Park duo was Aardman’s first major production, proving that the Bristol-based studio excelled in feature-length films as well.

“Chicken Run” was created in collaboration with the American corporation DreamWorks, but Aardman managed to maintain both independence and the mentioned “Britishness.” The story of anthropomorphic chickens led by the English hen Ginger and the American rooster Rocky, wanting to escape from the gloomy farm of Mrs. Tweedy, was an extraordinary blend of dark themes with light humor bordering on slapstick. The film was a brilliant pastiche of “The Great Escape” (1963) by John Sturges with references to “Modern Times” (1936) by Charles Chaplin, “The Colditz Story” (1955) by Guy Hamilton, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) by Steven Spielberg, and even “Braveheart” (1995) by Mel Gibson. But it was not just a humorous play with conventions – the fate of the clay chickens in the chicken POW camp could genuinely be felt because the characters had personalities and charm.

After the films “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (2005) by Park and Box and “Flushed Away” (2006) by David Bowers and Sam Fell, the collaboration between Aardman Animations and DreamWorks came to an end. In the documentary “A Grand Night In: The Story of Aardman” (2015) by Richard Mears and Merlin Crossingham, an employee of the British studio mentioned how the American corporation tried to take creative control over the film content, wanting to “Americanize” it and thus deprive Aardman of its roots in British comedy tradition – one of the elements that contributed to the studio’s global success (it’s humorously said that Wallace, Gromit, Ginger, and Rocky did more for promoting Britain than many ambassadors). In this context, the news of Aardman’s collaboration with Netflix on the second part of “Chicken Run” was unsettling.

However, it turned out that the British didn’t need Americans to get into trouble. Long before “Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget” hit the cinema screens (a one-time showing at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2023) and TVs (premiered on Netflix in December this year), the creators faced criticism regarding casting changes. While the resignation of Mel Gibson (Rocky) could still be defended due to controversies surrounding the actor, replacing Julia Sawalha (Ginger) with Thandiwe Newton was criticized as ageism. It was revealed that Aardman executives considered Sawalha’s voice too old, even though she is only four years older than Newton! This decision is particularly puzzling as the characters in the film have also aged. “I have officially been plucked, stuffed, and roasted,” lamented the disgruntled Sawalha.

The change of the main actors is the first misstep. Both Ginger, played by Newton, and Rocky, portrayed by Zachary Levi, sound like completely different characters. Ginger lost her charisma and edge, while Rocky speaks and behaves as if lobotomized – lacking the charming swagger from the previous installment. One could argue that the reason for this is the changes both characters went through: in “Chicken Run,” they were rebels who settled down in “Dawn of the Nugget”. But when Rocky and Ginger return to their old roles, they are equally bland. What’s worse, there’s no chemistry between them that contributed to the dynamics of their relationship in the 2000 film. The only actresses who reprised their roles are Jane Horrocks (Babs), Imelda Staunton (Bunty), Lynn Ferguson (Mac), and Miranda Richardson (Mrs. Tweedy), but they are only in supporting roles.

Another problem is the formulaic screenplay, repeating many plot solutions from the first part. Essentially, it’s again a story of a daring escape from imprisonment, but this time, it’s not an old farm with barbed wire but a modern meat-processing plant where chickens end up (the modernization of the camp gave the creators a pretext to reference Mission: Impossible and James Bond movies in several scenes). In both cases, the ruthless Mrs. Tweedy is the owner. The main character of the Nugget Era is the young chicken Molly, the offspring of Rocky and Ginger, but she is essentially a miniature replica of her parents (mainly her mother, of course) – a character devoid of her own traits. Molly is, in a way, a symbol of this film’s relationship to its predecessor from a quarter of a century ago: she looks familiar, almost the same, but far from the original.

However, “Dawn of the Nugget” has its merits. Stop-motion animation is impressive, as always with Aardman. The film is a feast for the eyes: colorful backgrounds, smooth movements of clay figures, the contrast between the idyllic nature of the island inhabited by chickens and the industrialized slaughterhouse filled with cameras, electronic traps, and guards, the play of lights and shadows… It’s evident that a lot of work went into all of this, and it’s not surprising that the production took over four years. Undoubtedly, it is one of the studio’s most successful visual works. The film’s pace is fast, and it doesn’t strain the viewer’s patience, clocking in at one and a half hours (it’s worth noting that the end credits last a whopping 12 minutes, extending the official runtime to 101 minutes). Another advantage is the absence of ubiquitous propaganda, which afflicts film-like products from Disney, among others.

The final verdict is ambiguous. On the one hand, there’s the dazzling execution and unpretentiousness; on the other hand, there’s the clichéd story and poor casting choices. The main flaw of the film is its conservative nature – where “Chicken Run” was bold and surprising, “Dawn of the Nugget” is safe and predictable. Tailored perfectly for the tastes of undemanding streaming service audiences that prioritize quantity over quality to fulfill a certain business model. In essence, Sam Fell’s film encapsulates the phenomenon of the pauperization of pop culture overfed with Netflix, Marvel, sequels, reboots, remixes, and recycling. So, if the first part was an exquisite duck in oranges, the second is like an undercooked meatloaf. You can consume it, but from giants like Aardman, more sophisticated dishes are expected.