'Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget': Soggy Scrambled Eggs

Nick Mohammed as Dry Fry, Miranda Richardson as Mrs. Tweedy, and Matt Berry as Sir Eatalot plan global domination in Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget

Nick Mohammed as Dry Fry, Miranda Richardson as Mrs. Tweedy, and Matt Berry as Sir Eatalot in Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget

Aardman/NETFLIX © 2023

There must be a science to making a quietly disappointing sequel. All the hard work and good intentions remain (especially if you’ve spent years manipulating little clay figurines), but everything feels more labored and less effective. Elements that change feel blatant, things that stay the same feel tired, and about thirty minutes in, you realize it’s not going to get miraculously better, and you now must start processing feeling forever a bit let down. Maybe you’ll internally practice the right vocal inflection for telling people afterward, “I think it was good?”

Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget comes twenty-three years after Aardman released the original Chicken Run, when Netflix was but a fledgling DVD mailing service and Aardman had a lot to prove. Chicken Run was the British animation studio’s first feature after three Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit outings and a whole host of darker, weirder shorts and commercials. 

Living in a utopian island commune that director Sam Fell has dubbed “Wakanda for chickens,” Ginger (Thandiwe Newton) and Rocky (Zachary Levi) are trying to maintain idyllic bliss with the arrival of their chick Molly (Bella Ramsey), who has a taste for adventure beyond Chicken Island’s boundaries. The flock soon embarks on a mission to liberate chickens being turned into processed food in a retro-modern, Bond villain-esque fortress, proving once more that the only happy chicken is a free one.

Rocky (Zachary Levi) and Ginger (Thandiwe Newton) in 'Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget'

Rocky (Zachary Levi) and Ginger (Thandiwe Newton) in Chicken Run: Dawn Of The Nugget 

Aardman/NETFLIX © 2022

Aardman is the gold standard of British animation. Their meticulous claymation and delightful humor always come with meta-textual riffs on more serious pop culture iconography – it’s evident in Chicken Run’s POW escape reference and Wallace and Gromit referencing Hammer horror and British noir. Their playful approach to cinematic history and genre always feels baked into the story; references are never distracting from character drama and are more likely to be cute than annoying. They do, however, feel distinct and graspable – we know the stakes and mood of breaking out of a WW2 prison camp, we know what Hammer horror looks and feels like, we know how we’re supposed to feel about shady noir villains hiding inside your own home (especially if they’re penguins).

It’s an intertextual touchstone that grounds your story with sincerity and gravitas – these films took themselves seriously, and by being playful with their tropes, Aardman gets to keep their objectively silly stories compelling. Bear this in mind for Dawn of the Nugget, a film that can’t decide to prioritize character drama and genre pastiche – and fails to meld them seamlessly together.

Aardman’s genre-riffing formula worked for Chicken Run, which was a massive hit upon release (23 years on, it is still the highest-grossing stop-motion film ever made), but its success may have cursed Aardman – none of their films have ever matched their debut feature’s box-office heights, and several are outright flops. But Dawn of the Nugget feels conflicted in narrative intent – now that all these characters have been established, does the sequel earnestly give them new character arcs, or should it once again explore character through genre parody?

Zachary Levi as Rocky, Romesh Ranganathan as Nick, and Daniel Mays as Fetcher breaking into an air vent in Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget

Zachary Levi as Rocky, Romesh Ranganathan as Nick, and Daniel Mays as Fetcher in Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget

Aardman/NETFLIX © 2023

Dawn of the Nugget tries to do both – it’s a family drama about new parents and forged community, but also a 60s Bond-ish send-up with retro-sci-fi supervillainy. These two motives both feel unfinished, even though Dawn of the Nugget updated its vegan messaging for the modern era by mind-controlling chickens to be blissfully happy up until the point of slaughter so their meat tastes better to consumers. It’s the only fun use of era-specific genre mechanics in a story that doesn’t feel like it’s lampooning clearly defined cinematic targets.

What’s more, the 23-year interim resulted in a severe gulf between the original and the sequel. The visual palette is completely different – the scrappy, moody aesthetics of the first abandoned for an overlit, flat style that doesn’t recall the prickling, stylized tension of the original. About four original actors make it into the new film, with replacement castings and voice-matching from lead and supporting characters. Some make sense (we don’t want Mel Gibson back), and some don’t (Julia Sawalha cited the reason for her replacement as ageism). Regardless, there’s a pervading sense under the gorgeous animation and well-meaning silliness we are watching another Chicken Run film.

Maybe 23 years is just too long to do a sequel set immediately after the original, but in an era of overly serious legacy sequels making all our favorite childhood heroes miserable, you do have to commend Aardman for keeping up the same tone and style as the first. It ticks by for 97 minutes, only dragging at a few points, but every undercooked joke and bland set-piece hammers home Dawn of the Nugget is an exercise of recapturing pop culture magic in a tired streaming age. No matter how much we want Chicken Run to be the exception, when has it ever turned out well?

Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget will not play in theaters in the U.S. but go directly to streaming on Netflix on Friday, December 15, 2023.

Picture shows: Rory Doherty

Rory Doherty is a writer of criticism, films, and plays based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He's often found watching something he knows he'll dislike but will agree to watch all of it anyway. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

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