When a film gets a sequel decades after the original, it makes sense to approach it with a healthy dose of skepticism. In most cases, there is questioning over why it took so long for a follow-up to be made, and whether it is coming way too late for there to be any significant impact. This was definitely at the front of my mind going into the sequel to the 2000 animated hit, Chicken Run. Coming 23 years after the original, this film, subtitled Dawn of the Nugget, has been long awaited by fans of both Chicken Run and Aardman Animations. While I like the original film a fair deal, I couldn't help but feel that this film was coming too late, and that it would miss the charm and fun that its predecessor had. Thankfully, it still has these elements in spades, even if it isn't quite as solid as the first film, and is a delightful sequel that builds off the original's themes well and translates them to the modern age quite well.
After their daring escape from Mrs. Tweedy's farm, Ginger (voiced by Thandiwe Newton) and Rocky (voiced by Zachary Levi) have settled in a nearby island along with their chicken friends. Soon after, they have a child, Molly (voiced by Bella Ramsey) who begins to show the same adventurous spirit and drive that they once had. When a mysterious building shows up near the island, Molly investigates, only to become trapped there. As it turns out, the building is a high-tech factory farm, and it is up to Ginger, Rocky, and the rest of the chickens to save her and chicken-kind once and for all.
Considering that the first film has a relatively simple premise and a pretty strong ending, I was wondering what direction this film would take. The concept of having the chickens break into a farm instead of breaking out of one works so well, and is a good flip from the first film. Furthermore, the fact that it is a factory farm strengthens the commentary of the first film, and allows the film to do more than just the inverse of the original. It is a bit on the nose with how it signposts specific moments, but this is also a film ostensibly made for children so I'll give it a pass there. The film also has a quick pace, not unlike the first film, but it does stretch on a little near the middle. However, the third act is quite exciting, and the film still has the fun energy that we've come to expect from Aardman. I can see this pleasing fans of the first film, while also introducing these characters to a new generation. In fact, I can see adults who saw the original film in theaters as children show Dawn of the Nugget to their own kids, and everyone having a great time with this film, as there is plenty for the whole family to enjoy.
It's no secret that Aardman is one of the best stop-motion studios of all time, so the animation and character design is top-notch as usual. I always have had a great deal of appreciation for stop-motion animators, as making films in this style is such a long, tedious process. But when someone can do it and do it well, I am always impressed. But even more than just the animation in general, the new additions, both in terms of characters and location are very solid. I especially liked the design of the factory, which is largely chrome, save for the "farm" area which is a colorful, park-like atmosphere with slides and other fun things to keep the animals busy. It is such a stark contrast from the prison vibes that the original film's farm had, and gives way to some strong commentary on factory farms that feels well-suited to the current state of chicken production. It helps keep things modern, and moves the film away from feeling like it is cashing in on nostalgia. It is clear that the team behind the film came into this with a great idea to continue the story of the first one, and were more concerned with telling that story well more than anything else.
One of the things that gave me the most pause going into the film was the re-casting of the film's two leads, Ginger and Rocky. Considering that Rocky was originally voiced by Mel Gibson, that casting change is not all that shocking due to his controversial nature. It is definitely more surprising that Ginger's original voice actor, Julia Sawalha, didn't return, but she was at least asked back before politely declining. When it was announced that Thandiwe Newton and Zachary Levi would be taking over the roles of Ginger and Rocky respectively, I felt slightly better, but still had mixed feelings. Thankfully, Newton is quite good, and is rather close to Sawalha's take on the character without feeling like she's doing an impression. It's good work on her part, and she has the same likable energy that Sawalha brought to the role in the first film. Levi, on the other hand, is a bit iffy. It's not a bad performance, per se, but it feels like he's basically doing a Diet version of his Flynn Rider performance from Tangled. In other words, its nothing we haven't seen him do before, and is a touch underwhelming. At the very least, he does get the bravado of the character right, and is a good foil for Newton's Ginger, but I wish there was a little more to his characterization of Rocky overall.
The returning voice actors, namely Jane Horrocks, Lynn Ferguson, Imelda Staunton, and Miranda Richardson, are excellent here, but the new voice actors really grabbed my attention. For starters, David Bradley takes over the role of Fowler from the late Benjamin Whitrow in great fashion, nailing the crochety, long-windedness of the character so well. I also liked Nick Mohammed's performance as Dr. Fry, one of the secondary villains of the film, as he is pitiful, yet funny for much of the film. But the best addition to the cast has to be Bella Ramsey, who plays Ginger and Rocky's daughter, Molly. They do such a great job of portraying the more intrepid nature of the character, and is especially great in the moments where they are able to play some of the more emotional moments the character experiences. Ramsey has shown that they are a very capable actor in projects like The Last of Us and Catherine Called Birdy, but this film shows that they are a solid voice actor as well.
Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget may have taken a while to be produced, but I would argue that it is worth the wait. Sure, it isn't as lean and cohesive as the original, but it is a worthy continuation that should entertain those who grew up watching the original, as well as a new generation of children. It's definitely one of the better films I've seen from Aardman in a while, and is a nice, charming animated film that is great for the whole family. It can be hard to pull off a sequel that comes several decades after the original, but Dawn of the Nugget is one of the rare ones that lives up to its potential, despite a few stumbles here and there.