The ethical vegan Jordi Casamitjana reviews the film “Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget”, the sequel to the famous stop-motion animated film “Chicken Run”, concluding that it could be an indictment against free-range farming, with a vegan message.
I wake up every morning hearing the BBC4 radio broadcast.
I use a radio alarm clock, and that is the station that is on when I begin my day. A few days ago, I woke up while an interview was happening, and my eyes opened straight away. I had already read the article from the Guardian titled “A vegan morality tale? Chicken Run sequel puts factory farming in spotlight”, so, as a vegan, I was really interested to watch “Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget”, a new movie premiered at the 67th BFI London Film Festival on 14th October 2023, the sequel to the famous animation movie. I was keen to watch it especially if it had upped the ante in their original message against animal agriculture. However, the Radio 4’s Today Programme interview was of Peter Lord, the co-founder of Aardman Animations creator of the movie, and one of its executive producers, and when he was asked if the movie was indeed a criticism of factory farming, he replied with an emphatic, “It’s not. It’s absolutely entertainment, that’s why we have made it.” That is what woke me up. Did the Guardian get it wrong? Had the creators down the ante, instead of up it? I was a bit reassured when Lord continued saying, “It is true that we engage the audience with the heroes, who are chickens, and we make them care about those chickens very much. And then they encounter people who want to eat them. So it’s quite clear where your sympathies lie. I.e. on the chickens’ side.”
I had to be sure, so I decided to watch the movie as it is now shown on Netflix (since Friday 15th December 2023), and review it. I really enjoyed it, and I thought it was clever, funny, entertaining, exciting, and generally very good — I am still amazed at how the animators manage to create very expressive facial expressions with very little to work with, and how herculean the whole project seems as everything was animated by hand. And I also thought that Aardman Animation did up the ante with a stronger message against animal agriculture — as I was hoping it would.
However, watching the film made me think that the Guardian (and many other platforms that had made similar comments) had chosen the wrong headline. In fact, I think that the message of the film is far more nuanced and interesting than what the press decided to focus on.
Here is my take on it.
The Tale of a Heroic Hen
First of all, spoiler alert. In case you did not already guessed, in this article I will be spoiling the movie by revealing plot twists — as this is an in-depth review, and you cannot review a movie properly without doing that. But if you already have watched the first movie, you already know half of the plot anyway.
As its original 2000 stop-motion animated comedy film “Chicken Run”, produced by Pathé and Aardman Animations in partnership with DreamWorks Animation, its sequel “Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget” — this time just produced by the Bristol-based Aardman Animations as the original was the most successful stop-animation movie ever made taking £180m at the box office — is also about a heroic hen, helped by other hens, roosters, and even rats to defeat the evils of abusive animal farmers.
This time the hero is Molly (voiced by Bella Ramsey), the daughter of Ginger and Rocky, the heroes of the first movie who escaped an egg farm portrayed as a prisoner-of-war camp. The sequel begins with all the chickens who had escaped in the first movie living a very happy life by themselves on an island, where Molly is born. She, like her mother, is a very brave and intrepid hen who feels suffocated with captivity, so her curiosity and sense of adventure makes her leave home seduced by the sights of a new road built close by, and trucks with images of happy chickens pained on their side passing by.
While exploring the “exterior” world, Molly meets Frizzle, another chicken who is heading toward the “paradise for chickens” those trucks seem to go to. One of the drivers notices them and takes them aboard the truck to the farm, which turns out to be a huge futuristic mysterious factory with incredibly high levels of security. At first, it does seem paradise as all the chickens are taken into what seems to be a fun theme park for chickens, with lots of attractions, plenty of food, and everyone seems to have a wonderful time. But soon Molly realises that something is wrong, as all the chickens, who are wearing a strange collar, are stupefied and brainwashed, bumping into each other with idiotic bliss.
Back on the island, our chicken friends, after discovering Molly’s departure, organise a search party led by Ginger (voiced by Thandiwe Newton) and Rocky (voiced by Zachary Levi, no longer Mel Gipson as in the first movie), with all the adorable characters of the first film (including the rats Fetcher and Nick, voiced by Daniel Mays and the vegan Romesh Ranganathan) — with their very diverse and charming accents. When they discover Molly has been taken into the scary-looking monstrous farm, they devise a plan to split into groups and to go to rescue her. After several classical action-movie scenes where each separate group trying to go in is almost caught (or actually caught and manages to escape), they find Molly, who by now has found out the true purpose of the farm. The fake “happy farm” is just a deception to keep the hens happy as research has proven that happy chickens produce testier meat. When Dr Fry, the scientist who runs the factory, uses a remote control to push the number of a chicken’s collar, the chicken with that collar will happily walk through a mesmerising door at the top of an escalator hoping she will get a prize, just to find death in a machine that transforms her in chicken nuggets to be put in a bucket for people to eat.
The plot becomes interesting when the wife of Dr Fry turns out to be Mrs Tweedy, the same evil farmer the chickens fought in the first movie, who discovers that Ginger is on the farm trying to mess with her life again. When Reginald Smith, a posh restaurant owner (voiced by Peter Serafinowicz), is convinced to buy all the nuggets for his restaurant chain, the scientist pushes the button so all the chickens can walk happily to their deaths, but, as you can expect, this does not happen because when our heroes have the opportunity to leave the farm with Molly, they all decide to return to save them all — which, naturally, they do, and all end up living free in the island again.
It’s Not Exactly About Factory Farming
When the director Sam Fell and the producers of the movie say this film is not about factory farming, I think they are not being facetious because they may be factually correct. I believe the big high-security mysterious animal farm does not represent a typical chicken factory farm, but something slightly different.
Broiler Chickens, the chickens bred for meat, can be farmed in two different ways. One is in factory farms where they are all caged in individual tiny cages (battery cages), which tend to be the norm for the chickens exploited by the egg industry. The other would be in the so-called “free-range farms” where all the chickens are kept in huge, closed facilities (big sheds) without any cages but all cramped in a big space with lots of food and constant light that make the chickens eat continuously until they gain weight very fast. I don’t think the farm in the movie represents the typical factory farm as there are no cages, and the real factory farms are not really sold to the world as the farms where chickens will be happy (everyone knows, even the animal agriculture industry, that factory farms are the worse types of farms with the worse animal welfare) as in the movie. On the contrary, I think the farm in the movie represents, in an exaggerated and symbolic way, the deception of free-range farms.
Free-range farms are often sold by the industry as “better farms for the chickens”, but this is a deception as the animals are kept in cramped conditions and overfed, and they will all be killed when they are still young (like in the movie). When people think free-range, they erroneously think chickens may be roaming free outside, but free-range farms tend to be indoor farms where all the chickens will grow and die without ever seeing the outside world. In such farms, chickens are only free to range in the confinement of their prison, which is a glorified dirty and noisy shed they have to share with thousands of other inmates. They are kind of factories of meat but deceptively sold as something better — exactly as in the movie. Even the argument in the film about “happy hens produce tastier meat” is a real argument used by the proponents of free-rage farming of the animal agricultural industry. All the farms where broiler chickens are bred are animal factories, but the traditional factory farms are cage-based factories sold as what they are (high productivity factories), while the “modern” free-range farms are shed-based factories sold as something “better” to deceive customers to pay more and feel less guilty.
When we first see the factory in the movie, the filmmakers are quite clever in making us think that the mysterious factory is either a typical factory farm or an abattoir. When Molly and Frizzle first enter the farm, we see an image of a conveyor belt machine taking each chicken off the trucks and hanging them by the neck while transporting them somewhere inside the factory (conveyor belts with hanging chickens are the reality of chicken slaughterhouses). But then they all are introduced to the “wonderful theme park” where they will be kept — quite a surprising moment in the movie, I thought.
However, when someone like me has seen what happens in the real free-range farms, and how the lights are on all the time and the amount of food provided is beyond what any chicken would have ever seen, the brightly coloured theme park with food machines making chickens stuff themselves becomes eerily familiar. After decades of artificial selection, modern broiler chickens are the result of rapid growth (which comes from their genes) and high feed efficiency (which comes from changes in feeding and husbandry methods), so they reach “slaughter weight” of about 2 kg in just six weeks of age, which is more than twice as fast as their ancestors, and they also have much larger breast muscles, which account for about 25% of their body weight, compared to 15% in the red jungle fowl, the wild chicken from which they were originally bred. The average weight of a broiler chicken at slaughter is now around 2.5 kg, compared to 0.9 kg in 1957.
In consequence, many broiler chickens collapse under their own weight and become riddled with diseases and pain, unable to move properly and becoming lethargic after a while. Therefore, the behaviour of real-life broiler chickens (dubbed “Frankenstein” chickens) is not that dissimilar to the one we see the chickens go through in the movie when Molly begins to suspect that something is not quite right.
And the “behavioural enrichment” we often hear free-range farmers boasting about is represented by all the “attractions” of the theme park (which do not conduce to real happiness, as they are tiny cosmetic improvements not really created because of concerns about the animal’s wellbeing, but to boos “productivity”). I think the film is brilliant in conveying all this in a very subtle way—so subtle that many journalists seem to have missed it.
In addition to free-range farming, another less subtle message I think the movie is trying to convey is the “evil” of fast-food chicken chains such as KFC. Although I suspect the producers would deny it, I think the posh Reginal Smith may be representing Coronel Sanders who created the KFC restaurant franchise, characterised by selling chicken nuggets in buckets — which is literally how they are supposed to be sold in the movie, and they make a big deal about it. In one scene, Mrs Tweedy, after showing Reginal Smith a video about why they farm the chickens in this “new and revolutionary way”, says this to him: “On every street, in every town, people on the go, modern people in a modern world, they want their food, and they want it fast. We will give it to them, by the bucket full.” Even Reginald’s invention of “the dip” as a new form of ketchup is quite telling.
I do not expect the producers would outright “confess” that these are the messages embedded in their funny little comedy, but they do not have to (in fact, you could argue that the message may reach further if they do not). Richard McIlwain, CEO of the UK Vegetarian Society, said to The Guardian about the movie, “I’m a big fan of the approach. Whether or not they’ve set out to make a vegan morality tale, the reality is that this is what happens in poultry farms. They’re not making it up.”
Metaphors of Veganism
In addition to the main two messages I think the movie is trying to convey (the deception of free-range farming and the evils behind fast-food chicken nugget restaurants), I found many more instances where I thought a vegetarian (or even vegan) message was being delivered.
For instance, it is quite telling that the factory in the movie is run by the same evil farmer that runs the concentration camp farm of the first movie, as this connects the small farm and the big farm as part of the same unethical wrongdoing, which is kind of the approach of vegans like myself who opposed all forms of animal farming, not just factory farms.
Also, the vegan narrative constantly highlights the deception of the animal agriculture industry, which is beautifully shown in the film with the truck driving to the farm with the image of a happy chicken sitting in a bucket with two thumbs up and the text “Fun-Land Farms” (which reminded me to the logo and publicity of the Laughing Cow —La vache qui rit — a brand of processed cheese products made by Fromageries Bel since 1921).
Another subtle message I detected comes from the heightened security of the mysterious farm (with lots of guards and laser-shooting robotic devices of the Mission Impossible style), which I think represents the Ag-gag laws that many US states and countries have passed to prevent investigators from reporting about what happens inside facilities of the animal agriculture industry (literally, these laws criminalise entering a farm to find out what happens inside, which is as bad as being zapped by a laser robot for trying). The secrecy of the animal agriculture industry that does not want the world to find out how it treats animals, combined with the lies of their PR machines, is something that vegans have been exposing for decades — and I think that, in the film, such whistleblowers represent the chickens trying to break in the farm despite all the obstacles.
Another element of the film I thought could be seen as having an underlying animal rights message is the fact that it exposes that living an “apparent” happy life does not compensate for being killed before your time to become food (at the young age of 42 days in the EU or 47 days in the US). In other words, the classic animal welfare vs animal rights argument. People who do not support animal rights but do support animal welfare reforms often ignore the fact that an industry that kills animals for food is already violating the fundamental rights of sentient beings, so just pushing for improvements in husbandry is not enough, and it would give you a false sense of achievement when the problem remains. In the movie, despite the chickens being “happy” going to their deaths, their own kind want them free, as killing happy chickens against their will is still unethical, which is the position of vegan animal rights advocates like me, and this is why we are abolitionist rather than reformists. Ginger’s journey through the two films is not dissimilar to the journeys many vegans go through freeing themselves from the evils of carnism, living comfortably in the cocoon of their vegan communities, feeling concerned about how other people exploit animals, and deciding to become activist and helping the entire world to free itself from carnism.
Finally — and this is my favourite part of the film — once all the chickens have been freed and live now happily on the island (which I want to point out is not an animal sanctuary as referred to in some articles, as no humans are managing them — a fact that is clear when Molly first see a human after leaving the island) they are not satisfied with their happy life and they occasionally leave their paradise to rescue other chickens in need. That, for me, put the chickens right in the role of representing militant vegan activists, those vegans who, after having been able to remove themselves from animal exploitation and living a much healthier life for themselves and the environment, they feel that is not enough and they become direct action activist trying to rescue individual animals.
I could not help looking at the always expressive eyes of Molly and Ginger at the very end of the movie, when they are about to rescue a group of scared chickens transported in a crate at a farm (implying that this is what they will be doing from now on with other farms), and seeing them as vegan activists preparing for an open rescue operation.
Perhaps it’s all in my mind, but “Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget” feels like a vegan movie to me, where no real animals are exploited, the heroes do what vegan activists do, the villains do what animal farmers do, society fuels their unethical behaviour with unscrupulous carnist consumerism, and a world where humans leave all the animals alone in peace is the final paradise of a happy ending story — I wonder how many vegans are among the Aardman’s team, but it has been reported that director Sam Fell became vegetarian during the filmmaking process.
A movie which took the vegan message it already conveyed in the original (I would say mostly vegan, not vegetarian, as remember that in the first movie, the “concentration camp” was an egg farm) and upped the ante with it to go deeper and further — even though in a clever subtle non-preachy way, still filled with funny moments and endearing memorable scenes.
If you don’t believe me, go ahead and watch it, and you’ll see (the film is also shown in cinemas now in addition to Netflix). If you do and you are not vegan yet, perhaps it will make you avoid eating turkey this Christmas, as these unfortunate birds suffer the same fate as broiler chickens.
I hope this film is successful and makes the producer start thinking about the third one. Perhaps by them, Sam Fell has become a vegan, and so have other members of his team. Perhaps Molly and her gang can help to free Shaun the Sheep (another of the characters of Aardman Animation) from the grips of the wool industry, and the third film progresses to tackle all the issues ethical vegans are concerned about (all animal exploitation, not just food related exploitation).
That will indeed be upping the ante.