Monday 18 December 2023

Rocky II: "Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget"

I can't remember all that much about 2000's Chicken Run, save that it was broadly entertaining, some way off Aardman's very best - the frantic inspiration of the shorts dissipated over feature length - and that the voice cast matchmade Mel Gibson with Julia Sawalha, which seems insane in retrospect. (2000 was a barmy old year.) Two decades on, and Aardman would appear to be following Pixar's recent lead, with an IP-recycling sequel that proceeds along an altogether familiar (indeed, familial) route. In 2023, not even Netflix would be profligate enough to bankroll a film with Gibson and Sawalha attached as leads (though the latter, at least, can be heard in passing during one of those early you-must-remember-this recaps), so Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget presses onwards with Thandiwe Newton and Zachary Levi as the voices of a newly hatching Ginger and Rocky. Since flying the coop, we're told, the pair have holed up with their feathered brethren on an island paradise far from the cruelties and indignities of industrialised chicken farming; Bella Ramsey voices their adventurous young offspring Molly, a Moana-like explorer keen to witness what's happening back on the mainland, even as this puts her and the rest of her brood within pecking distance of an old foe. When she inevitably gets into trouble, it's Ginger who gets what sounds like a trailer-ready mission statement for both movie and moviemakers alike: "Last time, we were breaking out of a chicken farm. This time, we're breaking in." In short: the same old plot, run through the machines in a different direction.

The bottom line with Dawn is that it's basically fine: it'll keep the kids placated for a few hours going into the second week of the holidays. Those of us who've grown up with Aardman, however, may have renewed cause to question the company's current direction of travel. The animation here - now part-stopmotion, part-computerised, the better to meet a 21st century content provider's efficiency requirements - isn't quite as distinctive as it once was; whole frames, scenes and sequences go in one eye and out the other, barely imprinting on the brain in the meantime. (Call me a purist if you like, but I miss the fingerprints in the clay.) Plot is now largely a matter of bricolage rather than genuine invention - or even more a matter of bricolage than it was when the first Chicken Run tipped its hat towards The Great Escape. There's some Mission: Impossible-like heisting to get into a facility that, behind its Teletubbyland soft play areas, conceals the deathly conveyor belts of a Toy Story 3, because it transpires the fearsome Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson), avatar of cutthroat, clucker-cooking capitalism, has upgraded her operations since she and our heroes last crossed paths. A lot of this just feels like shrugging assent to industry norms, but we might mourn the decline in the standard of the dad gags that used to be central to an Aardman film's charm. Where once the company hired the country's sharpest comedy minds to take a pass or two at their scripts, Dawn - credited to the transatlantic combo of Karey Kirkpatrick, John O'Farrell and Rachel Tunnard - yields only sporadic titters and snorts; a climactic sight gag - repurposed from a notable 80s comedy - only underlines the indiscriminating consumption the whole project has been geared towards. It's too jolly and colourful to be a complete disappointment, with consolatory flickers of the Aardman of old (Cliff Richard as a chicken death rattle, a human emerging from breadcrumbs) amid the all-action finale. Yet for all the narrative huffing and puffing to position corporate streamlining as a mortal enemy, this is an Aardman film with a pronounced whiff of the factory line about it. The hope, stronger now than ever, is that Nick Park is holding down a corner office and playing with whatever plasticine he can get his hands on in post-Brexit Britain, waiting for real inspiration to strike.

Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget is now playing in selected cinemas, and is available to stream via Netflix.

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