This preview of Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget comes from the film’s world premiere at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival.
The original 2000 Chicken Run is a delightful Aardman Animation stop-motion romp about a gang of chickens breaking out of a prison-like poultry farm. It takes its structure and imagery directly from classic prisoner-of-war escape movies, particularly 1963’s The Great Escape, which is why its cheerful plasticine characters inhabit such a grimy, lived-in world of barbed wire, wood, and brass, of contraptions cobbled together from old farm implements.
Netflix’s long-in-the-making sequel, Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget, is a similar movie — a jocular, all-ages, specifically British romp — but it looks strikingly different. Its inspirations are still mid-20th-century movies, but longtime stop-motion director Sam Fell (ParaNorman, Flushed Away) has moved the focus from war stories to 1960s spy-movie futurism. This sequel takes place in a bright world of gadgets, lasers, sculpted metal, mechanized steel doors, and mind-control plots.
A primary inspiration here is the James Bond movies, but Dawn of the Nugget takes even more elements from Mission: Impossible — both the original 1960s-1970s TV series, and the later movie incarnation that has become Tom Cruise’s life’s work. According to Fell and the production team, who attended the movie’s world premiere at the London Film Festival, the idea for a sequel to Aardman’s best-loved film started with a single phrase that lives on as its tagline: “This time, they’re breaking in!” The movie’s focus pretty much is that simple: An escape movie has become a heist movie, with the chickens infiltrating a high-tech farm facility that isn’t quite what it seems.
The setup is that practical Ginger and reckless Rocky — now played by Westworld star Thandiwe Newton and Zachary Levi, replacing the original’s Julia Sawalha and Mel Gibson — have settled down with the rest of the liberated chickens on a secret island, hidden from human eyes. They live an idyllic existence there, but the couple’s daughter, Molly (The Last of Us co-star Bella Ramsey), has a natural spirit of adventure that strains against Ginger’s overprotective bubble. One day, Molly spies trucks on the mainland advertising what appears to be a utopian chicken paradise called Fun-Land Farms, and runs away to investigate.
Fun-Land Farms is, it turns out, the new venture of the original film’s villain, Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson, still): It’s an elaborate fortress guarded by robotic moles and rocket-firing ducks, and run by Tweedy’s new mad-scientist husband, Dr. Fry (Ted Lasso’s Nick Mohammed). The secret sauce in Tweedy and Fry’s chicken recipe is a mind-control collar, paired with a Truman Show-style idealized artificial environment that means the factory’s chickens go to slaughter feeling happy and relaxed — and apparently much tastier that way. When Molly gets caught in this devious system, Ginger, Rocky, and some of their old friends set off to break her out.
Some of the gags this setup suggests are more obvious than others. Dawn of the Nugget has a gloriously silly non sequitur about one of those eye-scanning door locks no supervillain fortress is complete without, but also its fair share of set-pieces we’ve seen before, as the chickens sneak through air vents or disguise themselves as bushes. As usual for Aardman projects, the movie is gorgeously polished, but it’s also slow to find its rhythm, and as a sequel arriving 23 years after the original, it sometimes feels more like an obligation than a film the studio really needed, or wanted, to make. The first half is smoothly rote, but once the action moves fully inside the surreal world of Fun-Land Farms, the energy picks up and the ideas begin to flow.
That’s partly thanks to the filmmakers’ obvious love of those stylized ’60s espionage classics, which includes referencing deep cuts as well as broad ones. There’s a tart, satirical, almost paranoid edge to the mind-control conceit — a suggestion that a comforting, happy life as a good citizen is just lulling you toward the meat grinder — that’s reminiscent of an obscure, unforgettably weird British cousin to Mission: Impossible and James Bond: The Prisoner. This cult 1960s TV show stars an extremely angry Patrick McGoohan (also the show’s creator) as a secret agent called Number Six who is trapped in an idyllic folly of a coastal village where everyone is friendly, but escape is impossible.
Something about the unreal paradise the chickens are confined to in Dawn of the Nugget and the schoolmasterly-but-sinister attitude of their captors (as well as the bowler-hatted restaurant buyer who wants to buy their nuggets) reminded me of The Prisoner’s suffocating dystopia of cream teas, bureaucracy, and a weird white blob that chased down any would-be escapees. I could just picture Ginger turning furiously to the camera and uttering Number Six’s famous cry: “I am not a number! I am a free chicken!”
Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget will begin streaming on Netflix on Dec. 15.