A SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE:
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
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
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?