A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2019)
Close Encounters of the Furred Kind.
Aardman Animations’ delightful, boundary-breaking, dialogue-free claymation kids series returns to the big screen this summer with a sharp, whimsical, heartfelt, and above all hilarious spoof of science fiction, specifically the works of Steven Spielberg circa Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).
At a quick glance, the concept sounds trite: one dark evening Lu-La (Amalia Vitale), the cutest little alien you ever saw, lands her (or so the promotional materials tell me, but it’s pretty nebulous in-film) spaceship in the woods near the tiny village of Mossingham. The adorable alien critter soon makes its way to Mossy Bottom Farm, where mischievous leader of the flock Shaun (Justin Fletcher) is busy running rings around officious farm dog Bitzer (John Sparkes) while easy-going farmer … uh … The Farmer (also John Sparkes) remains oblivious. While the town goes UFO-crazy thanks to a local reporting to the press after a close encounter, Shaun resolves to help Lu-La to get back to her ship and then her home planet, and The Farmer sets the other sheep in the flock to building Farmageddon, a UFO-themed tourist attraction designed to milk money out of the alien-obsessed rubberneckers now descending on the tiny country town. But someone else is also descending: Agent Red (Kate Harbour) of the government’s Ministry of Alien Detection (M.A.D.), who plans on corralling the extraterrestrial interloper for scientific and no doubt unpleasant purposes.
Yes, that’s a pretty rote plot, but the simplicity and accessibility of Shaun the Sheep is a huge part of the franchise’s charm, and besides, simple is actually very hard to do. However, debuting feature directors (but long time Aardman employees) Richard Phelan and Will Becher have the knack. Despite the voice talent credited (although don’t underestimate the value of their grunts, moans, and mutterings), the Shaun series and movies are dialogue-free affairs, which means the action of the story and the personalities of the characters transcend cultural and especially linguistic, barriers. This is a very European conceit, as I discussed in regards to the Minions in my review of Netflix’s Klaus, and it works wonderfully here; this is a film you can take literally anyone in the family to, from the tiniest mite to the dustiest nonagenarian, and they’ll get something out of it. It’s a truly universal film.
There are specific cultural references that only pay off if you’re plugged into science fiction as a genre and a reference point, though, from the aforementioned riffs on E.T. and Close Encounters, to deeper cuts like a supermarket called Milliways and a garage dubbed H.G. Wheels. Doctor Who (Tom Baker edition — the best of the lot) turns up at one point, while Agent Red is a dead ringer for Agent Scully of The X-Files (1993-2018). Even if you’re not engaged by the actual story and characters, playing ‘spot the reference’ will keep you ticking over until the credits roll.
But then, if you’re not engaged by the actual story and the characters, perhaps playing ‘find my pulse’ will serve you better than ‘spot the reference,’ because Farmageddon, like almost everything to ever come out of Aardman Animation, the veddy British claymation kings who also gave us the Wallace and Gromit films and the droll Creature Comforts shorts, is thoroughly charming. For all that it’s designed for broad, cross-cultural appeal, Farmageddon retains a specifically British tone, reveling in fish ‘n’ chips and cups o’ tea, wooly jumpers, and welly boots. It’s a kind of gently mocking self-parody, like the cultural stereotypes René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo used to trot out in their Astérix books, but while those classics may not pass muster by today’s standards of sensitivity (clock the depiction of African and Semitic characters and try not to flinch), Shaun the Sheep’s soft barbs are aimed at its own culture, which makes a big difference.
The animation is, of course, superb. Aardman has been the world’s leading stop-motion animation house for decades now, and Farmageddon doesn’t fudge with the studio’s distinctive soft-edged, rounded design aesthetic. While CGI cartoons have advanced in leaps and bounds in recent years and all but vanquished hand-drawn animation from our screens, Farmageddon is a timely reminder of the ineffable wonder of a crafted product, the little details and rustic accents that are all but inimitable in the digital realm. Frozen II (2019) might look like a billion bucks, but Farmageddon looks like a gift crafted with love and attention, and that counts for something — indeed, the success of the recent Missing Link (2019) at the Golden Globes indicates that, for all the processing and marketing power behind the big screen CGI behemoths, the artistry found in this more bespoke style of animation still wins hearts.
Also worth noting is that this is a film bereft of villains, but not antagonists. This fits in with the overall narrative shape of the Shaun the Sheep series. Stern farm hound Bitzer might spend most of his time trying to curb Shaun’s more disruptive antics, but at the end of the day, he’s a stand-up friend who joins the adventure when the chips are down. Likewise, nominal bad guy Agent Red isn’t acting out of malice but is driven by childhood trauma to keep watching the skies, as we used to say. Even the rank and file contamination suited M.A.D. flunkies are just workaday schlubs, not stormtroopers. Conflict arises out of contrasting drives, mismatched goals, and misunderstandings — no pantomime villainy is required, and the win condition for Shaun and the gang isn’t martial victory, but communication.
A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon is simply an out and out delight of a film, amusing and funny, cute as a button but with an arch and somewhat anarchic sense of playfulness, as warm as a mug of Milo and as welcoming as a hug from your grandmother. Take your kids and, if you don’t have any, borrow someone else’s sprogs and get along anyway. This one will put a smile on your face for weeks.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson