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A vegan morality tale? Chicken Run sequel puts factory farming in spotlight

<span>Photograph: Aardman/Netflix</span>
Photograph: Aardman/Netflix

A trip to the cinema followed by a bite to eat is a staple treat of the school holidays. But the plot of one of this season’s big family films may mean the traditional stop-off afterwards suddenly seems less appetising.

In Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget, in cinemas on Friday, thousands of hens must be rescued from a nugget factory where they are kept in a state of stupefied joy by remote control lobotomising collars. This, a scientist explains, is because when a bird is frightened, “its muscles tense and the connective tissue forms knots”, resulting in “tough, dry and flavourless meat”. Reprogramming a chicken’s response to the horror of being “processed” should radically improve flavour and sales.

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Children attending a preview screening in London on Sunday appeared to enjoy the new Aardman film. None were heard leaving the cinema expressing eagerness for a bucket of nuggets.

“It’s really pushing the needle,” says Matthew Glover, founder of Veganuary and meat-alternative range Chick’n. “I’ve never seen a cartoon like this.”

“I’m a big fan of the approach,” says Richard McIlwain, CEO of the UK Vegetarian Society. “Whether or not they’ve set out to make a vegan morality tale, the reality is that this is what happens in poultry farms. They’re not making it up.”

The film-makers have rejected claims that they are “here to preach”, and said that any dietary reassessment would be just a happy accident.

“We want the film to be engaging and entertaining and a great ride, mostly,” the film’s director, Sam Fell, has said. “But yes, if you come away and you think a little bit more like a chicken by the end of it, then that’s not a bad thing.”

Some of the film’s key cast members – including Thandiwe Newton and Bella Ramsay – are passionate spokespeople for veganism, and Fell himself became a vegetarian during production.

This echoes the experience of the actor James Cromwell, who turned vegan while shooting 1995 film Babe, about a pig who thinks its a sheepdog. That film is credited for the biggest spike in vegetarianism in living memory.

“It’s aged really well,” says Richard Makin, author of Anything You Can Cook, I Can Cook Vegan. “And is responsible for a lot more compassion than we give it credit for.” Babe stood alone in its influence on young people until 2017’s Okja, another Netflix film, about a girl who befriends a porcine monster, which caused Quorn sales to spike.

“It certainly did have an impact,” says Jon Ronson, who co-scripted the film with director Bong Joon-ho, who also converted to vegetarianism during production. “I remember loads of people tweeting that they were never eating meat again.”

The new Chicken Run is, Ronson thinks, likely to do the same: “This will have an impact. It sounds quite upsetting and traumatising but I trust Aardman to do it in a fun way.

“All over the world you’ve got these vast numbers of animals confined indoors. Art is supposed to reflect a dark reality. So all power to them.”

The reach of Chicken Run 2 is hard to overestimate. The first film remains the most successful stop-motion movie ever made. It took £180m ($225m) at the box office in 2000; more than £400m when adjusted for inflation. Its sequel is also out on Netflix at the same time as in cinemas.

Netflix, says McIlwain, is becoming an “arbiter of change” in the field. Over the past few years, he says, the Vegetarian Society’s membership has been significantly swelled by people affected by two Netflix documentaries: Cowspiracy, about the environmental footprint of the meat industry, and Game Changers, about the health benefits of veganism.

“And just this week you had David Attenborough extolling the virtues of a plant-based diet on Planet Earth 3. So we’re at the cusp of a wave. This messaging is becoming more mainstream.”

Children’s movies from studios such as Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks have tended to avoid the issue, perhaps with an eye on fast-food outlet tie-in deals, which form a key pillar of such films’ merchandising and promotional push. Even figurines from the gently pescatarian Finding Nemo were given away with McDonald’s Happy Meals – Filet-O-Fish included.

Aardman’s independence allows it more editorial scope. And, Wallace’s Wensleydale habit aside, its films have long advocated for more symbiotic relationships between humans and animals. It’s also worth remembering that the first Chicken Run equated an egg farm with a prisoner-of-war camp.

The new film is set a few years later, in the early 1950s, at the birth of fast food. The chicken nugget factory is a vast, Dr Strangelove-meets-Bond-villain concrete complex, with the chickens helter-skeltered into a Day-Glo faux-funfair. Their only escape is a pink and blue escalator, complete with lights and music, which transports the beatific chosen ones to the nugget-maker.

While other films have expressed scepticism about eating meat more widely, Chicken Run 2 ups the ante by putting a specific foodstuff in the crosshairs. About 2.3bn servings of chicken nuggets are consumed in the US each year, and the product is a key offering of chains including McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King – only the last of which offers a vegan nugget alternative.

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A 2013 study in the American Journal of Medicine found at least half the content of the chicken nuggets sold by two fast-food chains in the US was fat, with muscle second, followed by tissue and bone.

A survey conducted last month in the UK found that almost a fifth of 2,000 adults “couldn’t live without” nuggets, while 13% would choose them as a final meal. Commissioned by plant-based manufacturer Impossible Foods, the survey also suggested 16% of people preferred vegan nuggets.

Reis Esiroglu, the founder of the UK’s first nuggets-only restaurant, Nugs, in Romford, east London, would dispute such findings. He reports that the chicken variety accounts for 95% of his sales. A shift towards vegan alternatives would be welcome as profit margins on cauliflower nuggets are considerably higher, “but I don’t really see demand going down for chicken nuggets in our company.”

“I do hope McDonald’s have a drop-off though,” he said. “I hate to think how they make them. Ours are high-end top quality.”

All the major fast food outlets contacted by the Guardian, including McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC and Nando’s, declined to comment, as did the National Farmers’ Union and a range of nugget retailers and producers, including Findus, Birds Eye and Iceland.

Veganuary’s Glover says that public inertia over demanding higher welfare standards –around 95% of the chickens eaten in the UK are factory-farmed – is down to the meat industry’s monopoly on lobbying and skill at sugarcoating. “People want to know where their food is coming from but they also don’t want to know. People would prefer to trust what is told to them rather than delve deeper.”

Concerns over climate change have further fuelled chicken consumption as people anxious about the emissions involved in beef and lamb production switch to poultry. “So the number of animals affected in the system increases substantially. A chicken has two legs and two breasts. A cow would feed a lot of people.”

For Makin, the Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget comes at a crucial time. “There’s definitely been a deceleration in excitement about veganism,” he says. Turkey Twizzlers – the much-decried Bernard Matthews meat spirals – began manufacture again in 2020, 13 years after Jamie Oliver spearheaded a successful campaign to get them off the shelves.

Makin hopes a new generation will seize the ethical baton – and that their parents may this time run with it. “We do a lot of disassociating from our feelings about food in general. We can’t all cope with the emotions that come with knowing about the human or animal suffering involved in an industrialised food system.”

Sticking to our first instincts could be the answer. “We all do a lot of blinkering and unlearning. Perhaps we should look to children more as I think how they feel when they first learn where meat comes from is probably what a lot of us feel deep down.”

The sinister factory at the centre of Chicken Run 2 bears the enigmatic slogan, “Where chickens find their happy endings.” Many hope the film may hasten just that.