The arrival of Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget on screens brings to mind a strange historical perspective. Those of us old enough to have watched the original Chicken Run in 2000 might recall a memorable trailer included with the film’s home video release, one that advertised a new movie called Shrek.
Dreamworks SKG distributed both movies, but the difference between them could not be more pronounced. Where Shrek boasted state-of-the-art computer animation, Chicken Run had tried-and-true stop-motion animation from Aardman, a studio founded in 1971. Despite his Scottish brogue, the brassy, gassy Shrek and his pals proclaimed American sensibilities, contrasted to the gentle poultry of the UK-based Chicken Run. Even Chicken Run’s one big name, Mel Gibson voicing the cocky American rooster Rocky, paled in comparison to the all-stars assembled for Shrek.
The past two decades have made that trailer and its placement into something of a prophecy. The Shrek style has become the norm in children’s entertainment, with countless other studios using computer animation to crank out snotty stories about characters with immense pop-cultural knowledge, voiced by big-name stars and scored by soundtracks full of hit songs. Kids and adults watch and rewatch the Trolls, Minions, and Sing franchises. Disney shuttered its hand-drawn animation departments to make CG movies about plucky princesses who make jokes about the studio’s previous output. Even Aardman joined the opposition for a bit, releasing the CG movies Flushed Away (starring Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet) in 2006 and Arthur Christmas (starring James McAvoy and Hugh Laurie) in 2011.
In light of these developments, the release of Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget, first to theaters on December 8th and then to Netflix on December 15th, feels like a referendum on children’s animation, a call for well-crafted kids movies built on compelling characters, smart themes, and actual jokes instead of cynical, synergistic products.
A Funny Feast for the Eyes
Set a few years after the events of 2000’s Chicken Run, Dawn of the Nugget finds the escapees from Tweedy Farm living a safe, if boring, life in the English country. While the arrangement suits the leader Ginger (Thandiwe Newton, stepping in for Julia Sawalha) and her husband Rocky (Zachary Levi, taking over from Gibson), it galls their daughter Molly (The Last of Us’s Bella Ramsey). Teaming with fellow teen Frizzle (Josie Sedgwick-Davies), Molly follows a truck plastered with images of happy chickens to Fun-Land Farm, where the scientist Dr. Fry (Nick Mohammed of Ted Lasso fame) intends to turn them into nuggets.
Where the first Chicken Run follows Ginger as she leads her fellow foul in an escape off a country farm, Ginger and the chickens break into a factory farm in Dawn of the Nugget.
That premise might suggest that director Sam Fell and his writers — Karey Kirkpatrick, John O’Farrell, and Rachel Tunnard — just employ the old sequel trick of reversing the first movie’s plot beats, the new setting allows for new gags and themes. Dawn of the Nugget imagines Fun-Land Farm as the greatest Bond villain lair Ken Adam never designed, complete with a cavernous control room, uniformed minions, and sleek robotic defenses. As almost an inverse to the convoluted homemade contraptions in Aardman’s flagship Wallace and Gromit series, the machines on Fun-Land Farm operate with efficiency and excess, making them perfect for comic set-pieces.
When Rocky launches himself over a wall onto Fun-Land’s grounds, robot dogs fall into formation around him, their disciplined attack sending him to desperate squirming. Fell places the camera in front of Rocky as he flees, keeping him in the center of the frame even as he flops and flails through an onslaught of darts. Mechanical ducks surround Rocky when he dives into a nearby moat and train their laser sights upon him. The sequence ends with a toasted and plucked Rocky scrambling back onto the wall. “Ta-da!” he wheezes to the on-looking chickens, digging the dregs of his bravado before collapsing into a defeated heap.
The gags here work not just because Rocky falls down and goes boom. They work because Fell and the animators adhere to the fundamentals of visual comedy, providing exemplary comic juxtapositions and timing.
The same can be said of all the filmmaking techniques on display in Dawn of the Nugget. The animators create even a simple establishing shot of the thicket into which Molly wanders to the highest level of excellence. When Molly stumbles into the center of the shot, dwarfed by the tangle of thorny blue brambles at the top and sides of the frame, every viewer — from young children to savvy cineasts — understands where she is and how she feels.
The attention to detail shines through in every frame of Dawn of the Nugget, and not just because it consists of intricate puppets posed on ornate sets. From the puns and pratfalls to scenes that tingle the spine and tug on the heartstrings, Fell and his fellow Aardman animators understand and respect the art of the children’s film.
The Horrors of Manufactured Happiness
The workmanship in Dawn of the Nugget underscores the evil of the Fun-Land Farm proprietor Dr. Fry (guided by a surprise mastermind, which this review will not spoil). Molly and Frizzle go to Fun-Land the company’s logo features a joyous chicken sitting in a bucket and giving two thumbs. They want the same happiness for themselves. Upon arriving at Fun-Land, they discover a playland full of swings and slides, upbeat music, and endless feed, all illuminated by an electric sun in a blue sky.
If those pleasures aren’t enough, Dr. Fry equips his chickens with electric collars that override all sense of anxiety or fear. “Happy, happy, happy,” mumbles one of the captive chickens, her eyes dazed and her smile a rictus grin from the onslaught of good vibes. The exuberant chicken keeps smiling as she rides a conveyor belt into the machine at the center of the farm, which emits a clean whirr until it produces a bucket of nuggets on the other side. “Anxious chickens make for tougher meat,” Dr. Fry explains to an investor who munches on the nuggets. “Happy chickens taste better.”
That sequence may disturb more sensitive viewers, but it also gives Dawn of the Nugget more sophistication than it could get from a self-aware wisecrack or a Justin Timberlake track. In addition to its obvious vegetarian stance, Dawn of the Nugget delivers a frank, anti-consumerist message. In the same way the chickens follow advertisements promising happiness and endless comfort into death traps, fast food transforms living creatures into tasty but unhealthy nuggets, promising taste and convenience while destroying the health of those who eat it. According to the movie, commercial conveniences bring ruin instead of satisfaction for people and poultry alike.
Artful Animation for Everyone
Not all of Dawn of the Nugget’s concepts work. Most character arcs fall flat, including the resolution of familial tensions between Molly and her parents. And while the voice acting never distracts, none of it stands out either, especially after Nimona and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse delivered some of the year’s best performances.
However, like those movies, Dawn of the Nugget eschews the dominant trend of modern animated movies to deliver complex and thematically rich cinema aimed at young audiences. It refuses to treat kids like mindless consumers and gives them a movie full of attention and care, even if that artistry results in nothing more than a hilarious pratfall.
Rating: 8/10 Specs
Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget releases in theaters on December 8th, 2023 and comes to Netflix on December 15th, 2023. We've got the latest on movies in theaters now.