What are you – a British chicken named Ginger (Thandiwe Newton) – supposed to do when your plucky young chick Molly (Bella Ramsay) insists on returning to the dangerous world that you spent the entire 84 minutes of Aardman’s “Chicken Run” escaping? Furthermore, how does it feel to realize that you’ve become the very thing that you once revolted against: AKA a jailor? “We’ve got our happy ending,” Ginger insists to her American rooster, Rocky (Zachary Levi). They are living in a grassy, human-free island sanctuary, making popcorn by rigging a magnifying glass to an upside-down jar and letting the sun do its work on corn kernels.
Ginger is issuing a reprimand to Rocky after he tells Molly about the adventurous way that they arrived on Chicken Island (a clever way to recap the first film) Accidentally, in the process, he makes her wonder what else is out there – as an egg hatched on Chicken Island, it is the only place she has ever known. So Molly leaves her gilded cage and, despite the short-lived thrill of making a friend in a wayward chicken named Frizzle (Josie Sedgwick-Davies), it’s not long before both are chicken-napped and taken to the ominously named Fun-Land Farm. Kids! Never let them out of your sight!
“Dawn of the Nugget” tees up universal questions on whether parenthood makes traumatized hypocrites out of us all, only to bench them in favor of a jamboree of slapstick larks and visual homages to other franchises – the joke being: those were live-action humans and here are some clay hens. While director Sam Fell continues the stop-motion brilliance of Peter Lord and Nick Park’s original, set pieces and winking homages are given primacy over character stakes leading to a somewhat grating emotional ride.
Once Ginger and Rocky realize that Molly is gone, they set off with a small flock in an attempt to find her and bring her home. “Chicken Run” riffed on “The Great Escape” and the Tweedy farm setting was designed to look like a World War II prisoner-of-war camp. The primary touchstone of “Dawn of the Nugget” is “Mission: Impossible” – and just in case any of you at the back were in danger of missing that, one character says, “This is an impossible mission” and another responds, “shouldn’t it be the other way around.” This is a fair summary of the faith the film has in its audience’s literacy.
Fun-Land Farm is pleasingly dystopic in its dual identity. Advertised to naive chickens as a promised land, its exterior is all industrial steel and barbed wire fences, however inside a special dome it looks like a dream come true. The Aardman team go to town in rendering a pastel-hued, free-range space populated by teacup rides, whack-a-worm, slides and an escalator leading to the sun, all set against a fake-blue-sky backdrop that is lifted from “The Truman Show”. Sure, the chickens enjoying the fair are wearing personalized electronic neck-tags and behaving in a distinctly Stepford-esque way, but this chintzy elevator music is so soothing.
A playful strength of “Dawn of the Nugget” comes through its homages and while there is sport to be had in ringing the references, the plot is extremely simple. Will Ginger, Rocky and the gang be able to rescue Molly and Frizzle from whatever terrible fate awaits at Fun-Land Farm?
Arch-villain Mrs Tweedy (Miranda Richardson) is back – her entrance via a comically overlong spiral staircase calls to mind Jacques Tati (really). The antagonist of “Chicken Run” has developed a personal vendetta against Ginger, and her new male stooge, the proprietor of Fun-Land-Farm, Dr Fry (Nick Mohammed) is but a pawn in her game to get even. For Dr Fry, the invention of chicken nuggets and mass sale of them to a fast-food chain named Sir Eat-A-Lot is business; for Mrs Tweedy, it’s revenge.
No one watches an Aardman film for gritty character drama or commentary on modern life, that stuff is only ever window-dressing. The true artful allure is in the physical world-building and this is where “Dawn of the Nugget” (could it not have been named something less distracting?) comes into its own. Set-pieces that show the chomping metal teeth threatening to transform our heroes into a steaming box of delicious breadcrumb-clad nibbles reveal what this animation studio has always done best. From the moment that we watched an elaborate DIY system tip Gromit out of bed and, through a domino effect of flying gizmos, eventually end up clothed and munching toast, without having to lift a finger in “The Wrong Trousers”, seeing these home-made systems in actions has been a source of genuine wonder that earned these films the tag ‘family;’ as opposed to ‘children’s’.
While the film leans more on gags than prolonged sources of wonder, there are Easter Eggs galore within Darren Dubicki’s intricate production design. Dr Fry and Mrs Tweedy’s back office looks like a ’60s Bond villain lair complete with retrofuturist furnishings and gadgetry deployed to torture. The best sequence arises when a rep from Sir Eat-A-Lot is shown an information video explaining the hitherto undiscovered invention of chicken nuggets. Told through a staged relationship – a small posh boy says, “Mummy, I hate you!” after being served dry chicken – the sleek, absurdly entertaining storytelling-within-storytelling here underlines what is lacking elsewhere in the film which feels baggy even at 97 minutes.
For all the painstaking visual detailing, “Dawn of the Nugget” falls fowl of some standard-issue sequel anxiety. A sense of Sam Fell having big shoes to fill permeates the atmosphere and, as he tries to replicate what made the original beloved, we see the moving parts, much like the conveyor belt carrying brainwashed chicken to their doom. Whereas the original shocked us early on by using noir-ish shadows to represent a chicken death, there is a risk-averse approach to showing anything like that this time. While there’s lots of hooting and hollering about saving Molly, without proof that the film will go there, the peril seems cartoonish and the eventual display of mass solidarity, which could have been a teachable moment for parents watching with children, is as throwaway as a misshapen nugget.
“Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget” premiered at the BFI London Film Festival. It is scheduled to begin streaming on Netflix on Friday, December 15.