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It brings me absolutely no joy to report that “Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget” is fine. That’s probably more than enough for parents looking for something to keep the kids busy on Netflix next week, but it’s not the standard set by the creative geniuses at Aardman Animation, the stop-motion masters who have gifted the world with Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep. Even their minor films—like the underrated “Flushed Away” and whimsical “The Pirates! A Band of Misfits”—typically rise above fine. A lack of ambition, just-off comic timing, and inferior world-building keep this bird from flying, despite there being just enough bits that work to make it worth a look, especially if you forget who made it.
It probably hasn’t been the 23 years since the original “Chicken Run” in the world of this film, but “Dawn of the Nugget” does take place at least a few years after the daring escape by chickens Ginger (Thandiwe Newton) and Rocky (Zachary Levi) from Tweedys Farm. The trauma of that event has led the free fowl to take up residence on an island where vicious chicken eaters like Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson) can’t reach them. Their rat buddies Fetcher (Daniel Mays) and Fowler (David Bradley) bring them supplies, but Ginger and Rocky’s daughter Molly (Bella Ramsey) longs to know what’s happening on the mainland. A series of events lands Molly in the confines of a massive chicken farm, a factory that seeks to revolutionize the nugget by keeping the birds as happy as possible before they turn them into fast food—stress makes for tougher meat. Ginger, Rocky, and the rest of the gang who broke out of a facility deadly to their kind in the first film have to break into one in the long-awaited sequel.
It's a great idea. It’s only modestly well-executed. There’s something about the rhythm of an Aardman comedy—a blend of physical humor, old-fashioned Vaudeville, and classic character beats that are warmed by full-bodied voice work—that’s so captivating. Yes, the technical acumen of an Aardman film is something to be admired, but I’ve always viewed them as great examples of classic comedy, something that plays well for all ages—go watch “Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon” for a great example of this formula done well. There’s something just-so-slightly off in the script here by Karey Kirkpatrick, John O’Farrell, and Rachel Tunnard. The jokes don’t exactly hit the floor, but they land with a “hmm” instead of a laugh. Outside of a few inspired sight gags, “Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget” just isn’t as funny as it should be or could have been with a sharper script. The voice cast also feels a bit uninspired by what it’s been given with Levi particularly failing to find the right tone for a former circus star who gets to revisit his old self to save the day. Like so much of this movie, Levi isn’t “bad,” he’s just not memorable. And there’s something that’s draining in a film that is constantly falling short of what it could be.
And yet it would be churlish to say that “Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget” is ever boring. It’s not. It keeps the audience interested in the inevitable rescue of Molly and her new buddies, landing just enough jokes and character turns to stop most Netflix viewers from looking at their phones. Again, that’s a perfectly threshold for most animated films in a year that’s been kind of weak for the form (outside of Spidey and Ghibli). It’s just not what I’m used to saying about Aardman.
In theaters now. On Netflix next week, December 15th.
Thandiwe Newton as Ginger (voice)
Zachary Levi as Rocky (voice)
Bella Ramsey as Molly (voice)
Jane Horrocks as Babs (voice)
Imelda Staunton as Bunty (voice)
Lynn Ferguson as Mac (voice)
Josie Sedgwick-Davies as Frizzle (voice)
David Bradley as Fowler (voice)
Romesh Ranganathan as Nick (voice)
Daniel Mays as Fetcher (voice)
Nick Mohammed as Dr. Fry (voice)
Peter Serafinowicz as Reginald Smith (voice)
Miranda Richardson as Mrs. Tweedy (voice)