Wednesday, December 20, 2023

The first Chicken Run set the bar so high that even a subpar sequel is still enjoyable

It's just... OK. It's fine. It tastes like chicken.

Twenty-four years after the incomparably funny Chicken Run, the stars finally aligned for us to get a sequel. There was a brief moment of worry that the award-winning studio Aardman Animations might not be able to keep creating, but all signs indicate it was a false alarm. However, this new entry in the saga of your favorite plasticine chickens with teeth and opposable thumbs doesn't rise to the level of the first. The now free flock have settled on a lake island and founded a prosperous little community, but their leader Ginger's young pullet, Molly, is curious about the outside world, and when she inevitably goes out to explore on her own, the adult chickens must mount a rescue operation, in the middle of which they discover that their old enemy Mrs. Tweedy has returned to the poultry business, this time with all the lethally efficient innovations of industrial farming. Can Ginger save her daughter before she's turned into fast food?

The core conflict in Dawn of the Nugget is basically the same as in the original, and the sensation of sameyness isn't mitigated by the addition of a daughter for the previous protagonist to save, as that particular trope has been done to death. The moment that was supposed to be the most exciting in the movie, the reappearance of Mrs. Tweedy, was unwisely spoiled in the trailer, and the charm of clay animation is lost under the immaculate detail of digital filming. In the "making of" short that accompanies it on the Netflix website, the filmmaking team explain that some digital polishing is always used to remove the lines and spots that naturally occur when reshaping clay hundreds of times in succession, but the finished product suggests that the artists may have gone a bit overboard with the cleanup. Viewers may be forgiven for believing that the whole movie was done in CGI.

The first Chicken Run had numerous scenes set during nighttime or in secluded spaces, which allowed the director to make impressive use of strategically placed shadows that heightened the tension. The persistent threat the hens lived under was portrayed with expressionist skies painted to stark dramatic effect.

The sequel doesn't take advantage of those tools and goes for a more natural look, with clear, open skies and realistic vegetation. The image is almost always too bright, even in spaces that are supposed to be poorly lit. Thus the emotional valence of the movie ends up being consistently cheerful, even when it shouldn't, missing the lingering danger that could be felt throughout the original.

This is not to say that Dawn of the Nugget was badly animated. Far from that: Aardman Animations has decades of impeccable experience with stop-motion techniques, and this movie boasts the same top-tier standard we know to expect from the studio. Camera movements are bolder this time and span large, complicated sets, putting to stringent test the puppeteers' ability to keep the magic hidden outside of the frame. Perhaps the presence of more light forced the post-production team to be more aggressive in hiding the imperfections in the clay, which would explain the sometimes unreal smoothness of the characters.

Unfortunately, the most expertly executed animation cannot make up for an uninspired script. The dialogues, especially between Ginger and her nuclear family, lack the wit and spark of the first movie. Ginger loses big portions of her previous characterization: the tired clich├ęs drawn from every comedy about overprotective parents have her routinely lie to her daughter with the same nonchalance she used to condemn in the rooster Rocky. Dramatic irony is employed in exactly the most predictable manner by turning Ginger into the limiting force she spent most of her life resisting.

The opportunity to continue the Holocaust metaphor is also wasted here. As a descendant of the generation that successfully battled against a regime of prison camps, Molly could have been written as a more interesting kind of teenage rebel. The specific time period when the Chicken Run movies are supposed to happen is hard to pinpoint, but Molly is clearly the token Baby Boomer of the story. (Here I must nitpick for a second: the last scene of Chicken Run showed the freed community raising dozens of newly hatched chicks; it's inexplicable how the sequel seems to imply that Molly is the only young bird on the island.) If you squint, a kind of continuity of theme can be identified in the subtler mechanisms of control that Mrs. Tweedy has implemented in her modernized farm, but the movie is uninterested in the potential for social commentary.

Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget has very few surprises and no memorable lines, and too many overused jokes that will especially disappoint viewers who remember the more biting style of humor of its predecessor. But it's full of eye-catching slapstick and the impossibly convoluted machinery that has become usual in the productions of Aardman Animations. It's every bit as zany and wild as you need claymation to be, and by that sole measure, it excels.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.