In Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget, in cinemas on Friday, thousands of hens must be rescued from a nugget factory where they are kept in a state of stupefied joy by remote control lobotomizing collars. This, a scientist explains, is because when a bird is frightened, “its muscles tense and the connective tissue forms knots”, resulting in “tough, dry and flavorless meat”. Reprogramming a chicken’s response to the horror of being “processed” should radically improve flavor and sales.
Children attending a preview screening in London on Sunday appeared to enjoy the new Aardman film. None were heard leaving the cinema expressing eagerness for a bucket of nuggets.
“It’s really pushing the needle,” says Matthew Glover, founder of Veganuary and meat-alternative range Chick’n. “I’ve never seen a cartoon like this.”
“I’m a big fan of the approach,” says Richard McIlwain, CEO of the UK Vegetarian Society. “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.”
The film-makers have rejected claims that they are “here to preach”, and said that any dietary reassessment would be just a happy accident.
“We want the film to be engaging and entertaining and a great ride, mostly,” the film’s director, Sam Fell, has said. “But yes, if you come away and you think a little bit more like a chicken by the end of it, then that’s not a bad thing.”
Some of the film’s key cast members – including Thandiwe Newton and Bella Ramsay – are passionate spokespeople for veganism, and Fell himself became a vegetarian during production.
This echoes the experience of the actor James Cromwell, who turned vegan while shooting 1995 film Babe, about a pig who thinks its a sheepdog. That film is credited for the biggest spike in vegetarianism in living memory.
“It’s aged really well,” says Richard Makin, author of Anything You Can Cook, I Can Cook Vegan. “And is responsible for a lot more compassion than we give it credit for.” Babe stood alone in its influence on young people until 2017’s Okja, another Netflix film, about a girl who befriends a porcine monster, which caused Quorn sales to spike.
“It certainly did have an impact,” says Jon Ronson, who co-scripted the film with director Bong Joon-ho, who also converted to vegetarianism during production. “I remember loads of people tweeting that they were never eating meat again.”
The new Chicken Run is, Ronson thinks, likely to do the same: “This will have an impact. It sounds quite upsetting and traumatising but I trust Aardman to do it in a fun way.
“All over the world you’ve got these vast numbers of animals confined indoors. Art is supposed to reflect a dark reality. So all power to them.”
The reach of Chicken Run 2 is hard to underestimate. The first film remains the most successful stop-motion movie ever made. It took £180m ($225m) at the box office in 2000; more than £400m when adjusted for inflation. Its sequel is also out on Netflix at the same time as in cinemas.
Netflix, says McIlwain, is becoming an “arbiter of change” in the field. Over the past few years, he says, the Vegetarian Society’s membership has been significantly swelled by people affected by two Netflix documentaries: Cowspiracy, about the environmental footprint of the meat industry, and Game Changers, about the health benefits of veganism.
“And just this week you had David Attenborough extolling the virtues of a plant-based diet on Planet Earth 3. So we’re at the cusp of a wave. This messaging is becoming more mainstream.”