Nearly a quarter-century has passed since Aardman hatched its first feature, and the generation that flipped for “Chicken Run” — tickled by the novelty of watching a pseudo-serious genre movie rendered silly by an ensemble of stop-motion poultry — has grown up to be parents. Distributed by DreamWorks, the 2000 toon reimagined “The Great Escape” with chickens, as a doomed flock schemed to fly the coop of a WWII-style concentration camp run by the intimidating Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson).
In the tasty (if young-skewing) sequel commissioned by Netflix, “Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget,” it’s the other way around … or, as gung-ho Ginger (Thandiwe Newton) puts it in her trailer-ready motivational speech, “Last time, we broke out of a chicken farm. Well, this time, we’re breaking in!” Where the tongue-in-beak original was a sendup of war movies, “Nugget” serves as a riff on “Mission: Impossible”-style action flicks, putting Ginger in charge of an operation to infiltrate an industrial chicken farm after her only child, Molly (Bella Ramsey), gets locked up there.
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From a distance, the facility looks more like a Bond villain’s heavily fortified base than any food-processing plant you’ve ever seen. To the chickens imprisoned inside, however, Fun Land Farms has been designed to meet their idea of paradise, albeit a creepy “Squid Game”-esque one where brightly colored sets and sky-blue walls give a semblance of comfort before the feathered guests are sent to the meat grinder. Seems like a fairly humane alternative to most chicken farms, even if it’s a far cry from the cage-freedom their brethren enjoy early on — as seen in a cute montage set to a catchy song, Paloma Faith’s “My Sweet Baby” (a nice break from Harry Gregson-Williams’ overly busy, occasionally Lalo Schifrin-inspired score).
Raised in relative safety on an island apart from humankind, “big brave girl” Molly has reached an age where she wants to explore the wider world — a world where humans have decided that chickens are delicious. It’s interesting that Aardman managed to make two movies in which audiences empathize with chickens without doing anything to diminish their appetite for the creatures. “Nugget” is not a call to veganism so much as a fanciful case of demonstrating to kids where their deep-fried treats actually come from, since it’s easy to forget when eating food that bears no resemblance to a once-living animal.
The “Chicken Run” sequel brought “Flushed Away” helmer Sam Fell back into the Aardman fold, after going off to co-direct “ParaNorman” for Laika. Whereas CG toons are like chicken eggs, best if enjoyed by a certain date, Aardman’s approach — which involves minutely adjusting plasticine figures and photographing them a dozen times for every second of screen time — has a timeless quality that still looks fresh decades later. Fell wanted to do “Flushed Away” in stop-motion, but the scope was too ambitious at the time. With “Nugget,” he’s free to dream big, and the digital tricks used to extend sets or orchestrate complex crowd scenes are nearly seamless (a sharp eye can tell where shots have been composited, but it’s less of a distraction than it was on Peter Lord’s “The Pirates! Band of Misfits”).
Among the qualities that set the Aardman sensibility apart is a cheeky kind of absurdism, amplified by the British accents and provincial, blinky-eyed naiveté of their birdbrained ensemble. Dating back to the days when Nick Park was doing Wallace and Gromit shorts, the creative team loves complicated gadgets and elaborate trick shots of the sort you might see in a live-action production. Fell favors more straightforward compositions and traditional camera angles, but gets kooky on occasion — as when Mrs. Tweedy makes her dramatic entrance, descending a spiral staircase.
“Nugget” reunites most of the original characters, if not necessarily the same cast. Ginger’s plucky as ever with Newton in the recording booth, and Rocky (once voiced by Mel Gibson) is appropriately cocky now that “Chuck” star Zachary Levi is doing the honors. The rooster’s role is largely diminished here in order to make room for the heroic hens. Imelda Staunton and Jane Horrocks are back as Bunty and Babs, while David Bradley makes a fine stand-in for Fowler, the crusty old war vet. When Molly goes off on her own, she meets a feisty single lady named Frizzle (Josie Sedgwick-Davies), who makes a spunky addition to this lot of pear-shaped critters.
Scripted by “Chicken Run” alums Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, along with newcomer Rachel Tunnard, the sequel doesn’t offer many surprises plotwise, but is consistently amusing in its dad-jokey kind of way. The folks at Aardman can hardly resist a good pun, and they load “Nugget” with a level of detail that will reward repeat viewings. Speaking of detail, the crew is now working with digital cameras so sharp, they had to go in and virtually scrub the dust and lint from their maquettes. But they’ve left a few fingerprints, which has long been the signature of a studio that embraces a certain degree of imperfection — just enough to reveal the artists’ hands behind the scenes.
Not all of Aardman’s American partners have honored its uniquely British disposition (the original “Chicken Run” was the studio’s first stab at delivering what it thought Hollywood wanted, and it meant toning down the daffy English humor). With Netflix, it’s found a home for an eccentric sensibility almost sure to appeal to kids. Per Aardman’s recipe, it seems you can’t make a sequel without cracking egos.
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