A film review by Craig J. Koban March 5, 2020

A SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE:

FARMAGEDDON jjj

2020, G, 87 mins.

 

Justin Fletcher as Shaun / Timmy (voice)  /  John Sparkes as The Farmer / Bitzer (voice)  /  Amalia Vitale as Lu-La  /  Kate Harbour as Timmy's Mum

Directed by Will Becher and Richard Phelan  /  Written by Mark Burton and Jon Brown

ORIGINAL FILM

I've run out of superlatives over the years when it comes to talking about the animated films produced by Aardman, the studio that has become absolute masterful pioneers of the thankless art of stop motion.  Their latest endeavor (released internationally last year and finally seeing the light of day here on Netflix), the amusingly titled A SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE: FARMAGEDDON, is another qualitative home run for the studio.  Not only is it a droll delight from beginning to end, but it's an endlessly handsome animated feature brimming with visual creativity and some quick witted slapstick shenanigans.  And to be completely honest, I'll take what Aardman is doing over any computer animated picture from Disney/Pixar any day of the week and twice on Sunday. 

FARMAGEDDON is a direct sequel to 2015's SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE (which I enthusiastically awarded four stars in my original review), which in turn has its origins in the original WALLACE AND GROMIT stop motion animated series that put Aardman on the map (the 1995 short A CLOSE SHAVE netter the studio and director Nick Park much deserved Oscars).  Characters from that short spawned a TV series that further ushered in the SHAUN THE SHEEP feature film, the latter of which showcased the titular character moving away from his rural farm surroundings and into the big city for a grand adventure of comic mischief.  If anything is abundantly clear within watching the first few minutes of FARMAGEDDON it's that the makers here have remained lovingly faithful to the Aardman creative formula in continuing to explore the limitless boundaries that stop motion animation offers them.  This is one of the most sumptuous animated films - stop motion or not - of recent memory, but it's also one of the funniest films that I've seen in awhile. 

The story opens with highlighting yet another painfully ordinary day on Farmer John's property, with his loyal number two in Bitzer the dog serving as a sheriff to all of the barn animals, desperately trying to ensure strict law and order.  Of course, Shaun the Sheep always manages to make life extremely difficult for the increasingly annoyed Bitzer, seeing as he's always plotting with his fellow farm animals to launch a series of pranks that he hopes will drive the beleaguered dog as nuts as possible.  Things change for everyone on the quiet farm with the appearance on Lu-La, a young extraterrestrial that - much like another similar movie alien of Hollywood's past - has become stranded on Earth and has lost her way back to her kind.  Being a pleasantly inclusive sheep that he is, Shaun takes the frightened, yet inquisitive alien in and helps feed its unbridled curiosity about the planet, but the visitor from the cosmos has triggered the Ministry of Alien Detection, with a villainous Agent named Red hot on Lu-La's heels.  Shaun and his farm buddies take it upon themselves to find a way to get Lu-La back to her ship and home. 

 

 

To start with, FARMAGEDDON is a most curious sequel to SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE in terms of adding in a seemingly incongruent alien angle into the proceedings, but it's the infectious bizarreness of this follow-up that gives it a much needed creative jolt (plus, no one could ever accuse directors Will Becher and Richard Phelan - making their debuts - from lazily going back to the narrative well to rehash the first film's plot).  Obviously, FARMAGEDDON pays homage to Steven Spielberg's E.T. - THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, albeit substituting in Shaun and his clan for Elliot and his crew.  The filmmakers have fun with exploring the comic possibilities of this close encounter, perhaps most amusingly with the mostly hapless farmer - realizing the cash potential of an alien landing on his land - turning his farm into a pathetically low grade attraction for alien obsessed tourists.  Then there's poor Bitzer, who has the misfortune of being accidentally mistaken for a real alien by the nefarious Agent Red, which makes his life all the more hilariously complicated. 

The opening act of FARMAGEDDON is its finest, especially in allowing viewers to revisit the farm and reacquaint with Shaun and his clan of misfits, and the makers here show great relish if devising schemes for Shaun et al to launch, much to the chagrin of Bitzer, all of which further highlight what a completely oblivious boob John is to everything that goes on.  There's a real enterprising spirit of spontaneous hijinks that typify these Aardman films, and FARMAGEDDON further shows how confident and skilled the studio is at spirited tomfoolery and exemplarily executed sight gags.  There's a wickedly hysterical sequence early on featuring increasingly annoyed Bitzer putting up one fanatically specific hazard sign after another to outlaw behavior on the farm with each new Shaun conceived scheme.  FARMAGEDDON retains the bubbly and infectious charm of SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE and its predecessor TV series and knows precisely what made them tick while simultaneously coming up with innovatively fresh angles to keep the comedic momentum flowing.  Cross morphing the unique brand of dry English wit with the trappings of a sci-fi thriller is an absurd one, to be sure, but it marvelous works here. 

Becher and Phelan also understand that the key to the biggest laughs in these films resides in the physical slapstick comedic set pieces as well as in their uniquely deadpan approach.  So many modern animated films favor mindless, histrionic chaos in hopes that mayhem will score chuckles and appease kids, but Aardman favors the subtler nuances of editorial timing knowing when to unleash visual punchlines to well set up gags.  A lot of the time, it's something as simple of a gesture, a playful expression, or silence itself that scores the heartiest laughs here, and the Aardman puppeteers and animators use the playful freedom and tactile quality of stop motion to their advantage.  The more one watches FARMAGEDDON the more one begins to appreciate that it works as a superb silent film.  This film and SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE before it have no dialogue whatsoever.  That's not to say that their characters don't speak, but they communicate in monosyllabic gibberish, which is funny in its own right.  The more direct tip of the hat to silent films are this film's winks to the work of Charlie Chaplin, with one superbly sly moment paying very specific respect to a similar one in MODERN TIMES.  The fact that Aardman manages to make its characters - human and not so human - so lively and idiosyncratically charming without any discernable dialogue at all is to their esteemed credit.   

Of course, the animation here is thoroughly jaw-dropping, and every new film from this studio manages to somehow surpass the ultra laborious and hand crafted technological prowess of what came before (again, not to belittle what nearly every other studio on the planet does with computer animation, which is a massive time consuming and manpower intensive undertaking, but there's just something ethereally awe inspiring about the artistic patience and precision required with stop motion animation that's totally unique).  That, and the crackerjack snarkiness that put Aardman films on the map is lovingly evoked here as well.  On a level of criticism, though, the directors here perhaps insert too many musical cues and references to Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY for their own good, not to mention that a lot of the pop culture references to other sci-fi properties like THE X-FILES, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and DOCTOR WHO sometimes overwhelm and distract the picture from what Aardman's truly gifted at.  And maybe FARMAGEDDON is a bit too overstuffed in terms of plot compared to the fish out of water economy of SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE, which leads me to concluding that the last film is the slightly superior of the two.  Still, this sublime stop motion animated feature is awfully hard to nitpick, and Aardman's wondrous comic engine is lovingly executed with a rich multi-dimensional artistry that's simply impossible, in my mind, to beat.  The only shame here is that this film is being dumped on Netflix for North American consumption instead of on the big screen.  That's just not very cricket, isn't it?

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