Ageism (particularly aimed at women) is, has always been, and will continue to be a huge problem in Hollywood – but I have to admit, I’m shocked that a studio as universally beloved as Aardman Animations would ever entertain the notion of recasting one of their most iconic characters simply because the original voice actress is “too old” for the role. That’s right: Julia Sawalha, the voice of Chicken Run‘s lovable protagonist Ginger, will not be returning for the film’s sequel, but will be recast with a younger actress whom Aardman hopes will be more recognizable to modern moviegoers.
This is massively disappointing news for several reasons. For one thing, I was very excited to see what a Chicken Run sequel would be like – it’s been twenty years since the original animated film about chickens trying to escape from homicidal pie-makers opened in theaters, and the thought of seeing a continuation to that story had me over the moon, especially when it was announced that Aardman would be teaming up with Netflix to make sure the sequel got a mainstream release. There was never any doubt in my mind that one of the original film’s lead voice actors, Mel Gibson, would be recast for the sequel because he’s been wallowing in controversy for years (even as recent as last month, Winona Ryder accused him of making both blatantly anti-Semitic and homophobic comments in her presence), and indeed, Sawalha noted that he is not being asked to return either: but what did Julia Sawalha ever do that would cause her to be recast? Well, she aged, and – oh wait, that’s it?
Sawalha is 51, still younger than a number of male actors who are always getting asked to return for franchise reboots and remakes. And as she proved unequivocally in a side-by-side comparison video she provided to Chicken Run 2 producers (since she wasn’t even allowed to go through a proper voice test before Aardman made the decision to cut her from the film), her voice hasn’t changed substantially in the past twenty years: there are several points in the video where it’s impossible to distinguish between thirty-one year old Sawalha and fifty-one year old Sawalha. And need I remind Aardman that this is a sequel they’re making? As in, a movie which takes place after the events of the first film?
But logic isn’t going to win a fight against something as insidious as ageism. I discussed this just a few days ago in my review of 1982’s Tron, where I talked about how the film’s male leads were allowed to return for the 2010 sequel – but female lead Cindy Morgan never even got so much as a phone-call from Disney. Unfortunately, this is a problem that comes up time and time again. There’s always an excuse – in Sawalha’s case, it’s because Aardman wants the film to appeal to a younger crowd, and is looking for an actress with more name recognition: though I’m sure they’ll have a hard time finding anyone who wants to touch this role with a ten-foot pole, considering the circumstances under which it’s been vacated – but it’s time we stopped allowing these excuses to fly. Julia Sawalha is Ginger. She shouldn’t be recast when there’s absolutely no reason to do so.
I’m very disappointed with Aardman Animations. I’m suddenly very uninterested in the notion of a Chicken Run 2. I’m extremely sorry for Sawalha, who helped to create the character of Ginger and now will get no say in the next chapter of her story. And, above all, I’m upset that Hollywood continues to deny work opportunities to actors (but let’s not fool ourselves, this mostly happens to actresses) once they hit a certain age. At this point, the best we can do is petition Aardman to change their minds – and the internet has already rallied loudly and passionately around Sawalha, so it’s not impossible: though I doubt Sawalha herself would feel comfortable working on the film.
What do you think about this casting controversy, and do you still plan on watching Chicken Run 2 even without Julia Sawalha? Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments.