This year, Aardman shook hands with the titans. The Bristol-based animation studio produced a reference-laden short for Disney’s Star Wars: Visions series and, now, has delivered a sequel to their 2000 box office hit Chicken Run for Netflix. And, yet, they’ve kept hold of their underdog sensibility – the impression that they’re the quiet kids at the back of the class, twiddling with lumps of clay, only to reveal some ingenious work of whimsy. Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget may not quite rise to its predecessor’s level, but if this is the closest Aardman ever comes to selling out then, well, there’s still hope for animation’s future.
If there’s any suggestion Aardman’s gone all Hollywood, it may lie in some of the changes to its voice cast: Mel Gibson has been replaced as cockerel Rocky (for obvious reasons) by Shazam! star Zachary Levi. Julia Sawalha has been replaced as hen Ginger (for less obvious and far more contentious reasons) by Thandiwe Newton. Meanwhile, The Last of Us star Bella Ramsey joins as Rocky and Ginger’s plucky, bright-eyed kid Molly. All three now live in an idyllic chicken Themiscyra, away from human intervention and human taste buds. But Molly itches for justice when she spots, across the water, a truck of less fortuitous fowls being hauled away to their bread-crumbed doom.
Dawn of the Nugget is a convenient, but clever, reversal of the previous film’s parody of The Great Escape. Here, instead of breaking out, they’re breaking in, as Molly teams up with the suitably named Frizzle (Josie Sedgwick-Davies) and attempts to free the inmates of Fun-Land Farm. It’s an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist mixed with Mission: Impossible (at one point a character declares, “It’s an impossible mission!”, just to make sure the audience’s all on the same page). Fun-Land Farm is part Bond villain lair, part Squid Game level, with the chickens having been shepherded into a plastic, sensory sedation wonderland, complete with fairground rides and mind control collars. Mrs Tweedy (Miranda Richardson) returns, girl bossier than ever. It’s not exactly radical enough to read as pro-vegan (was the first one either, really?), but it certainly paints factory farming as the devil’s work.
Aardman, as of late, has embellished its stop-motion traditions with a little CGI wizardry, so that the odd crowd scene and wide vista offers somewhat of a blockbuster scope. But that’s not why anyone watches these films, and the studio, thankfully, has dished out plenty of what people have come to see: silly, hodgepodge contraptions built with the British can-do spirit – subtle reminders that these stories are truly handmade creations. Babs (Jane Horrocks) is back, knitting crochet bicycles that immediately collapse into a heap, while others cook popcorn with a magnifying glass, or construct scuba diving kits out of bits of junk.
And while Newton and Levi make fine substitutes, it’s Ramsey’s joyous, buoyant performance that really carries the film. Molly speaks for the intrepid youth, whose bravery and idealism could always teach their parents a thing or two. Perhaps it’s harder now for Aardman to reach the new generation without dipping their toes into mega-corp waters – but at least Dawn of the Nugget proves they don’t have to compromise their art in the process.
Dir: Sam Fell. Starring (voices): Thandiwe Newton, Zachary Levi, Bella Ramsey, Imelda Staunton, Lynn Ferguson, David Bradley, Jane Horrocks, Miranda Richardson. PG, 98 minutes.
‘Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget’ is in cinemas from 8 December, and streams on Netflix from 15 December
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