Aardman Animations’ claymation classic gets a banner sequel 23 years later on Netflix. Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget has the beloved poultry protagonists living an idyllic island life. Ginger (Thandiwe Newton) and Rocky (Zachary Levi) have a daughter, Molly (Bella Ramsey), who’s “a chick off the old block.” She’s accidentally sent to Fun-Land, a supposed chicken utopia, only to discover it’s a meat factory run by a goofy scientist and the villainous Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson). Ginger’s nemesis has returned for a “chicken apocalypse.”
Renowned animator Sam Fell (Flushed Away, ParaNorman) takes over direction from Peter Lord and Nick Park. He worked with the original’s screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick to “conjure up a new type of movie” nearly “15 years” after Chicken Run‘s mammoth success. While the first film parodied The Great Escape, Dawn of the Nugget is a spin on Mission: Impossible, which Fell hilariously nickames ‘Chicken: Impossible.’ This time “they’re breaking in” as opposed to trying to escape Mrs. Tweedy’s deep-fried clutches.
Dawn of the Nugget’s production had a bit of drama when it was announced that Chicken Run leads Julia Sawalha and Mel Gibson would be replaced by Newton and Levi. Sawalha took her disappointment public, decrying ageism as a factor. Fell addressed that complaint by stating, “I don’t want to make a carbon copy of the first movie. Time has passed. The characters have changed. The stories have changed. It’s not a romantic-comedy between Rocky and Ginger anymore.” Fell believes it “was fair as a first thing for a director to be doing” and “I was in my zone, making my decisions about my movie.”
Dawn of the Nugget is an absolute delight despite issues during COVID and after the pandemic. Fell recounts, “The roof buckled. There was a lot of rain. We had over 70 leaks. People were running around just trying to cover the sets.” Then there were the arduous COVID protocols of “when the animator finished, someone would come in with a hazmat suit and big gloves, and take the chicken to a quarantine area. There was a tent with UV lights where the chickens were placed on shelves for 10 days.” Read on for our complete interview with the brilliant Sam Fell.
MovieWeb: It’s an honor to speak with you. I’m a big fan of all of your work. Once again, you’ve hit it out of the park. The film is hilarious.
Sam Fell: It’s really good. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I thought we would cheer everybody up for 85 minutes.
MW: Screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick, in my view, can do no wrong. The script was absolutely brilliant. Aardman parodied The Great Escape in the original film. Now I see a Mission: Impossible theme.
Sam Fell: Yeah, I call it ‘Chicken: Impossible,’ actually. It took a long time because the first movie was so great. It was something so loved. Then someone said, where’s the sequel? Cut to 15 years later, Karey and I met with Peter [Lord] and Nick [Park]. The idea came about this time that they’re breaking in. That was the one line. The first movie was The Great Escape with chickens; we conjured up a new type of movie like Mission: Impossible. All the ingenuity that you get from Aardman, gizmos, contraptions, clever visual gags that will instantly be conjured up in everybody’s mind, just like the comedy of replacing Tom Cruise with a chicken. It’s just instantly comical on that level.
Sam Fell: They were working originally on a more male-orientated movie. They were trying to tell a Rocky story. That’s when I arrived. After a while, we realized that we needed to look at Ginger. She was such a great hero in the first movie, a strong female protagonist with a great female crew around her. In some ways, quite ahead of its time back then in the year 2000. It just felt right to be telling the next chapter of Ginger’s story. What would be her next challenge? She’s got everything she wanted, right? She’s got freedom on this island. She’s created this paradise. What could go wrong? She settled down, lays an egg. It’s all good. Then the egg cracks open and out pops Molly, who’s basically like a chick off the old block. She’s like a mini Ginger. That’s the next challenge for Ginger. Meeting her younger self.
MW: Let’s talk about recasting the lead actors. Rocky is no longer Mel Gibson. He’s replaced by Zachary Levi. Thandiwe Newton now voices Ginger. I’ve read that Julia Sawalha, the original Ginger, was upset. Is there anything to that? You have a lot of the original actors returning. What was the reason for the new leads?
Sam Fell: As a new director coming in, it’s always been to figure out how they evolved from the first movie, which I completely adore. Many people adore it and, in my mind, it’s a masterpiece. How do I evolve this thing into making it 23 years later, a new movie for a new generation, a new era? It was a slow process. To be honest, no snap decisions were made. I began getting a casting director for Molly. I found Bella [Ramsey], Dr. Fry, and all the new characters. I don’t want to make a carbon copy of the first movie. Time has passed. The characters have changed. The stories have changed. It’s not a romantic comedy between Rocky and Ginger anymore. I looked at every single character and certain names popped out.
Sam Fell: Zachary Levi popped out to me because of Shazam. That was a classic family movie. His performance was amazing. He’s warm, he’s funny, and his timing is impeccable. Rocky is this hapless, more comical father. I felt that Zachary was a great fit for that. Similarly, Thandiwe popped out to me because of Westworld, which I was deeply immersed in. There’s a new dimension in Ginger. There’s a vulnerability that comes with being a parent. She didn’t have anything to lose. She was a very serious character. Now she’s a more vulnerable character, torn between protecting your child and remembering who you once were. I saw that strength and vulnerability internally in Newton’s performance in Westworld. She just jumped out to me as a great idea for Ginger. I was in my zone, making my decisions about my movie. I felt like it was a fair thing for a director to be doing. I see this as a reboot as much as a sequel, personally.
MW: That makes sense. Let’s discuss the visual aspects of the film. It looks amazing. Was there new technology used to make the epic action scenes more fluid outside of stop-motion?
Sam Fell: The big challenge of this movie is scale. It’s like a big Saturday night action movie. It’s like a Bond villain’s revenge on the whole of chicken kind. Most of what you see is made in stop-motion, the old way, handmade stop-motion. I think that’s the soul of Chicken Run. But in order to get the biggest scale, I needed to use more digital. We need to augment it with digital work. On the wider shots, the bigger scale stuff, we used miniature and digital models, sometimes matte painting. Animating a chicken, stop-motion style, is really difficult. It’s so painstaking. You don’t get anything for free. We scanned our chickens.
Sam Fell: We had people animating them in CG. Aardman has an in-house CG team that understand the style of Aardman. They have the right sensibility. The crowd scenes in the village and Fun-Land scene, they’ve been finished digitally. They’ve been animated, rendered, and finished digitally with digital background sets. It’s a combination. Stop-motion’s over 100 years old. That’s still the beauty and the heart of it. It’s kind of like a bicycle. A bicycle is an old piece of technology. This is more like an electric bicycle. That’s a good analogy.
The Style of Aardman
MW: The first scene of the chickens going up the stairway in Fun-Land. We don’t see them getting torn to pieces. There must have been a conversation about what to show and the level of darkness.
Sam Fell: In the first film, I don’t know if you remember, but you actually saw the carcass on the kitchen table in front of Mr. Tweedy. Nobody would notice that, it’s just a chicken. That discussion was had back then. How far do you go? That’s why the first film had a great balance between drama and comedy. We’re doing death again. It’s something that people are shy of. But when you set the stage that high and your heroes are facing that jeopardy, it makes you care more. You’ve fallen in love with them. You really do not want to see them turn into nuggets. So when it came to the actual process, I did design a machine, sketched it out, put a chicken in and nuggets out.
Sam Fell: I figured out what would have to happen in between. I was like, I don’t think I want to put that in the film. Then the whole Fun-Land thing came about. It’s a little bit of a satire on food these days, the way it’s sort of presented. It’s always happy and colorful. The truth is not so happy and not so colorful. They’re just happy to kind of go into the portal, and then that’s all you know. It was kind of a satirical look at the way we think about food now. I thought it was well handled. You have the Happy Meal Box, but to actually get what’s in that box is pretty bloody and dark. So we don’t really want to do it.
MW: A common problem I’ve been discussing with a lot of animators recently was COVID. It was a major issue across the movie industry, but for animation with different teams, it was really problematic. How did COVID affect this film?
Sam Fell: Some stuff you can do at home, but stop-motion, it’s a very much a community thing. It’s collaborative, tactile, you’re in the field. You’re literally surrounded by the movie. When we were shooting was difficult. We had all the protocols, masks, we had to stand 10 meters apart. It slowed things down a lot. The nice thing about stop-motion is you work together on problems. You can actually see each other’s problems. It’s very organic, and that’s why it’s so nice to be honest. COVID killed that.
Sam Fell: The maddest thing that happened was when the animators finished animating a puppet in isolation, the puppet was now considered contaminated because it had been handled. Animators lick their fingers to smooth the plaster. So when the animator finished, someone would come in with a hazmat suit and big gloves, and take the chicken to a quarantine area. There was a tent with UV lights where the chickens were placed on shelves. They were left on the shelves for like 10 days in order to wait for the COVID to die on them or whatever.
MW: This new incarnation of Mrs. Tweedy is like Dr. No in James Bond, with the blue outfit, black gloves, and that weird neck collar. Talk about making her character more threatening.
Sam Fell: It all kind of grew organically as we were developing it. Once we got the idea of nuggets, it seemed epic, evil, and the most awful kind of apocalypse. It’s not like she wants to just get revenge on some chicken. She’s going to devastate the whole kind. We’re back in terms of saying this is the early 60s. This is the world’s first nugget factory. Imagine all the nuggets that have been eaten since 1961. That’s a lot of chickens. Millions of chickens are going to die.
Sam Fell: Dr. Fry was the original menace. He just wasn’t strong enough. He didn’t seem to connect to Ginger. Tweedy is deep in her subconscious. She’d be in her nightmares. That sort of strong fear she needs to overcome. It all came out of Ginger’s character. The makeover was great fun, those 60s boots, all of that 60s fashion styling, it just fit her so well.
MW: What was the best and worst day for you as director of Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget?
Sam Fell: Most days are great, especially when you’re up and running and all the teams are working. You’re literally surrounded by your movie. I’ve done other forms of animation and CG is great. There are a lot of advantages, but it is people sitting at desks on screens. You go down to the art department. There are chickens everywhere. There’s a staircase over there and you walk into puppets. There are chickens on benches. Every day is a joy.
Sam Fell: The worst days are when you hit roadblocks. COVID wasn’t fun. Then, after COVID, the roof leaks. It was a really hot summer and the roof buckled. There was a lot of rain. We had over 70 leaks. People were running around just trying to cover the sets. There are downsides as well.
There aren’t any downsides to Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget, though, which premieres December 15th exclusively on Netflix. You can watch it through the link below and check out the trailer.
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