Confession time: Chicken Run is, quite possibly, one of my favourite films ever. Juggling complex themes of feminism and class warfare with claymation hijinks, the stop-motion animation from DreamWorks – aka the highest-grossing stop-motion film in history – tells the tale of Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha), a British chicken who longs to escape the farm that’s holding her and her fellow hens captive.
Expertly parodying scenes from The Great Escape, Ginger repeatedly attempts to escape Farmer Tweedy’s clutches, only to have her efforts foiled every single time. The others encourage her to give up. To focus on laying eggs. To keep Tweedy happy. Until, that is, a rooster named Rocky (unfortunately voiced by Mel Gibson) crashes into the hen house.
His arrival inspires Ginger’s most ambitious escape plan yet: she wants Rocky to teach her coop to fly. And she wants him to do it before Farmer Tweedy can make good on his plans to turn them all into chicken pies, too.
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Like I say, Chicken Run is a brilliant film. So, naturally, I was incredibly excited when it was recently confirmed that fans would finally be getting the sequel of their dreams, some 20 years after the OG movie’s cinematic release.
Or, at least, I was excited. I was. But then I learned that Sawalha was being replaced with “a younger actress”, and, just like that, my excitement bubbled over into fury.
“The reason they gave me is that my voice now sounds ‘too old’ and they want a younger actress to reprise the role,” she explained.
Noting that she had not been given the opportunity to do a voice test to determine the suitability of her pitch and tone, Sawalha added that she is “passionate about my work and I don’t go down without a fight, so I did my own voice test at home and sent it to the producers.”
However, while the voice test forced producers to agree that her voice did not sound older, Sawalha was told that they would “still be going ahead to recast the voice of Ginger”.
“To say I am devastated and furious would be an understatement,” she added.
“I feel totally powerless.”
While Sawalha went on to say that she wishes the production the best of luck and the greatest success, she finished by noting that “there is nothing more I can do.”
“I’m off for the chop now,” she said, calling back to the tragic fate of the farm’s older chickens in the original film.
You can read her full statement below:
The response on Twitter to Sawalha’s statement has been enormous. And people are, understandably, upset.
“Ageism,” tweeted one. “There is absolutely no other reason, it’s disgusting and blatantly obvious.”
“Thumbs down to such a fowl and repre-hen-sible decision,” noted another.
“Peter Sallis was 83 when he voiced Wallace [of Wallace And Gromit fame) in The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit,” said one more.
And, of course, many insisted that they would not be watching the remake without Sawalha on board.
“They aren’t bringing you back for a character that you made iconic with your voice?” asked one, in disbelief. “Nope. No. Nah-ah. What Chicken Run 2?”
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I’d like to point out here, as so many others have, that the Toy Story films spanned more than two decades with Tom Hanks and Tim Allen in place as Woody and Buzz. That 51 is not, and should never, be deemed “too old” for anything. That the character in question is that of a TALKING PLASTICINE CHICKEN and, as such, age shouldn’t really be a factor in all of this.
Then again, though, I’m not all that surprised. Disappointed, of course, but not surprised. Because, as we all know, Hollywood has long had a terrible ageism problem when it comes to women.
It was Amy Schumer who first coined the all-important concept of the ‘Last Fuckable Day’, during the 2015 season premiere of her Comedy Central series Inside Amy Schumer.
“In every actress’ life, the media decides when you finally reach the point when you’re not believably fuckable anymore,” she said.
According to the sketch, the signs that an actor has reached this milestone include: movie posters forgoing images of you for just a photo of the kitchen, wardrobes that consist mostly of frumpy sweaters, and all of your films being remade with younger actors.
Or, in the case of most Hollywood actors, being told that you’re too old to play the love interest of your male co-star. That same male co-star who is either a) the same age as you, or b) several, or more than several, years your senior.
Check it out:
For a while, it seemed as if things were changing for the better. And a lot of that is to do with the fact that women in the spotlight are speaking out against toxic age shaming in Hollywood (the less often we see older women on screen, after all, the more we assume that maintaining a youthful appearance is an absolute must).
As Big Little Lies star Nicole Kidman noted whilst accepting her first-ever SAG award in 2018: “How wonderful it is that our careers today can go beyond 40 years old,” she said, before turning her attention to her fellow nominees – Susan Sarandon, Jessica Lange, Reese Witherspoon, and Laura Dern – as well as the other women who have inspired her over the years.
“20 years ago we were pretty washed up by this stage in our lives.
“That’s not the case anymore. We’ve proven… that we are potent and powerful and viable. I just beg that the industry stays behind us as our stories are finally being told.”
She added: “It’s only the beginning.”
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Recently, though, we seem to have regressed slightly in our attempts to banish Hollywood ageism. This week alone, we haven’t just seen Sawalha’s unceremonious dismissal from her iconic role as Chicken Run’s Ginger; Charlize Theron, too, has expressed her disappointment over Furiosa being recast for the Mad Max: Fury Road prequel.
“It’s a tough one to swallow,” she told The Hollywood Reporter, before going on to add that she respects director George Miller’s decision to bring in a younger star for the spin-off.
“Listen, I fully respect George, if not more so in the aftermath of making Fury Road with him. He’s a master, and I wish him nothing but the best.
“Yeah, it’s a little heartbreaking, for sure. I really love that character, and I’m so grateful that I had a small part in creating her. She will forever be someone I think of and reflect on fondly.”
It’s worth noting here that, just last year, we saw Will Smith digitally de-aged to play a younger version of himself in Gemini Man. That Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci used this same technology to play younger versions of themselves in 2019’s Academy Awards contender, The Irishman. That Orlando Bloom was digitally de-aged to resemble his younger self for his reprisal of his Lord Of The Rings character, Legolas, in 2013’s The Hobbit. That Michael Douglas, too, used digital de-ageing technology to appear in 2015’s Ant-Man. And let’s not forget that Samuel L. Jackson played his younger self throughout the entirety of 2019’s Captain Marvel, too.
Double standards, much?
With that in mind, then, we’d like to once again call upon Hollywood to stop airbrushing women over the age of 50 from our screens. It’s infuriating, demeaning, and outrageously sexist. And, the longer we allow it to go on, the more it will be considered the norm: we’ll be living in The Handmaid’s Tale’s Gilead, where older women have mysteriously and ominously disappeared (or are only seen in terrifying Aunt roles), and nobody will say a single word about it.
Plus, as we all learned from watching Chicken Run the first time around, those who brand older women as being good for nothing but “the chop” are supposed to be the bloody villains of the story. Let’s start treating them as such, yeah?
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.