The New ‘Chicken Run’ Proves Aardman Has Its Own Pixar Problem
For years, it’s been a familiar lament: What happened to Pixar? Sure, the heralded animation company’s recent films weren’t terrible — even Lightyear looked pretty decent — but in comparison to its heyday, movies such as Soul and Turning Red lacked the old magic we’d come to expect, maybe even taken for granted. As a result, every new Pixar release is burdened with the weight of not being able to live up to the studio’s past glories. Used to be that a Pixar movie was reason to get excited — nowadays, the response is closer to a shrug.
Because Pixar has dominated animation for so long, winning myriad Oscars and making billions of dollars, its modern struggles are more noticeable. But what about another formerly great animation house, which has quietly produced a series of charming but lowkey films for decades? There was a time when anything Aardman released would be an event. But as this week’s Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget, which comes to Netflix on Friday, suggests, perhaps like Pixar, this company’s best days are behind it.
This may be a minority opinion: The recent Aardman films Shaun the Sheep Movie and A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon got great reviews. And like with Pixar, it’s not like its films’ qualities have suddenly fallen off a cliff. (I would still take the worst Aardman over the best Illumination piece of junk.) But I confess what once made Aardman so special now feels cloying and shtick-y. And those qualities are especially apparent in Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget, which comes out 23 years after the hit original. Much has changed in the world since then — most notably that Mel Gibson, who voiced the main character in the first film, wasn’t brought back to reprise his role for obvious reasons. It’s not the best sign that, honestly, I missed his energy in this sequel.
Dawn of the Nugget explains that, after the chickens escaped that terrible farm from the first Chicken Run, they found their own outdoor sanctuary, creating a little paradise for themselves far from the reach of hungry humans. Rocky (now voiced by Zachary Levi) and Ginger (now voiced by Thandiwe Newton) have settled down and started a family, and life seems pretty grand. But then their daughter Molly (Bella Ramsey) decides she’s tired of her overprotective parents, running away to what she believes is a swanky chicken resort. Turns out, it’s a factory farm — and Rocky and Ginger are going to have to rescue her.
Initially, this sequel seems to have a clever idea: Chicken Run was about breaking out of a farm, whereas this new movie is about breaking into one. Rather than goofing on The Great Escape, Dawn of the Nugget is an impudent riff on Ocean’s Eleven and other heist films. But there’s something off about the new movie, and it’s not just the disappointing downgrade from Gibson to Levi as Rocky. (Like in the recent Shazam flicks, Levi doesn’t bring much charisma to the part.) Directed by Aardman masters Peter Lord and Nick Park, Chicken Run felt like an exciting new world — both fresh and quaintly familiar — while the new movie (helmed by Sam Fell) comes across as flat and obligatory. Those who have long waited for a Chicken Run follow-up may be disappointed that this is what Aardman came up with.
When Aardman started in the early 1970s, co-founded by Lord, the company specialized in stop-motion animation, which is time-consuming but also essential to creating characters that come across as lovably imperfect and handmade. Helping to bring Peter Gabriel’s legendary “Sledgehammer” video to life, the studio soon became synonymous with Park’s Wallace and Gromit, the endlessly endearing man-and-his-dog comedy duo, with Gromit the silent, perhaps smarter partner. Thoroughly British in their wry sense of humor, the Wallace and Gromit shorts were tiny little charm machines, the intentionally antiquated stop-motion standing in defiance of the flashier animation that Hollywood was in the process of embracing. The same winter of 1995 when Toy Story premiered, heralding the future of computer animation, Aardman’s A Close Shave also debuted, going on to win the short-film animation Oscar.
Aardman didn’t get into feature-length comedies until 2000’s Chicken Run, which showcased the company’s quietly zany sensibility. Slapstick, puns, great one-liners, groan-worthy one-liners: The film had a little bit of everything. Above all, though, it was incredibly cheeky — if the geniuses at Pixar were nerds about story structure and character arcs, then the Aardman gang were a bunch of jokers entertaining themselves with their sly, stupid, obvious and/or subtle gags. The cinematic homages were delightful, and Gibson had rarely been more appealing than as Rocky, a cocky rooster who might be all talk.
Not long after Chicken Run, Aardman produced a Wallace and Gromit movie, 2005’s The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and then eventually transitioned to computer animation for its next film, Flushed Away. Dawn of the Nugget is mostly stop-motion, accented by CGI work, but that handmade quality remains, even if a lot of the old sparkle seems missing.
The fundamental problem with Dawn of the Nugget is that it’s not all that funny. Amusing in spots, intermittently clever and featuring a truly inspired iPad joke I won’t spoil, the sequel (which is co-written by Karey Kirkpatrick, who wrote the original) strains rather than glides from set piece to set piece. It doesn’t help matters that the idea of Rocky and Ginger having to contend with domesticity isn’t particularly novel — The Incredibles, among others, got there first — and the reveal that Molly’s dream getaway is actually a nightmare is a premise swiped from plenty of other films. In Chicken Run, the notion of a bunch of chickens breaking out of a farm — an epic saga depicted like a World War II POW drama — yielded endless funny bits, but there’s almost nothing in Dawn of the Nugget that’s as rich a comedic conceit.
The sequel also faces the same issues that have bedeviled Pixar of late. Dawn of the Nuggets is enjoyable and lighthearted in exactly the ways Aardman films often are. It’s not simply that the movie brings back several of the characters from the original — it’s that the company’s brand of foible-filled underdog protagonists has started to become repetitive. The movies are still charming, but charming in a way that no longer surprises — much like how Pixar films such as Elemental rely on the same “Let’s dream up a fantastical world and humanize inanimate objects” formula that worked much better in Inside Out. Inspiration can turn into routine, despite the best of intentions, and while watching Dawn of the Nugget — as I have with other modern-day Aardman films — all I could feel was the sense of distance between the glory days and now. You’re witnessing an echo of past greatness, like hearing the same joke you’ve heard a thousand times before, its wittiness long fizzled out.
What helps Aardman is that it produces so few films, avoiding the numbing glut that Pixar’s factory-like production line can create. It’s often years between Aardman projects — the company’s last was 2019’s Farmageddon — although there’s reportedly going to be a new Wallace and Gromit movie coming our way in 2024. But then again, it’s depressing to think of Aardman as just a place that keeps recycling its greatest hits. To be fair, though, the studio has been that way for a while — don’t forget that the Shaun the Sheep films were built around a character who was part of A Close Shave. It puts Aardman in an unenviable position similar to Pixar: Both studios, although very different in terms of clout, ambition and riches, are stuck balancing between pumping out sequels and trying new projects that may fall flat on their face. (Originals like Flushed Away and Early Man were financial failures.)
Aardman has bounced around between different distributors, currently working with Netflix, which will also be releasing next year’s Wallace and Gromit picture. Much like Laika, another innovative stop-motion house, Aardman doesn’t stoop to producing shallow, cynical, moronic kiddie fare, which is how I would define most mainstream animated films — I don’t want companies like this to go away. But for as much as we gnash our teeth at the fall of Pixar, Aardman’s creative rut is equally dispiriting as you watch Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget. Aardman showed us what it was possible to do with some clay and a little imagination. Let’s hope that run isn’t over yet.