I hope that’s the worst joke you read/hear today. Five years ago, the first Shaun the Sheep Movie was nominated for Animated Feature at the Oscars, eventually losing to Inside Out. I had never seen the TV show before, but I was familiar with the world of Nick Park and the charming British claymation style. I didn’t care for the film all that much, though, because the plot seemed too involved for a simple kids movie where all of the characters just grunt and make animal noises. I recall falling asleep while watching it. Suffice to say, I wasn’t a fan. Then last year, I found it interesting that the sequel, Farmageddon, was nominated for Best Animated Film at the BAFTAs, but wasn’t even submitted to the Academy. I presumed the quality was so low that they wouldn’t even bother trying to vie for an Oscar again, but maybe thought they’d have a chance on home turf.
It turns out that my presumption was in fact, very wrong. First of all, Farmageddon wasn’t eligible last year, because it wasn’t released stateside in 2019, though it was in the UK, making it okay there. Second, it turns out Farmageddon is actually pretty good. Unlike the previous outing, this film has a much simpler plot, the jokes land, and it doesn’t feel like I have to actually know the show to follow along.
An easy, modern take on E.T., the plot involves an alien called Lu-La (voiced, such as it is, by Amalia Vitale) landing on Earth and triggering some local UFO-mania in Mossingham. After some hijinks on the farm, angering dog guardian Bitzer (John Sparkes) and wrecking the Farmer’s (also Sparkes) harvester, the titular ovine, Shaun (Justin Fletcher) encounters Lu-La and decides to help her get back to her ship (which she calls “Zoom Zoom” so many times that I almost wonder if the movie wasn’t directly funded by Mazda), and eventually back to her home planet. Along the way, the Farmer tries a get-rich-quick scheme profiting off the UFO sighting to buy a new harvester, and a government agent known simply as Red because of her hair color (Kate Harbour) investigates and pursues the group, hoping to prove the existence of alien life.
It’s all very elementary, and given the young target audience, that’s just fine. The plot is simple, but not by-the-numbers. For example, there’s no shoehorned conflict at the end of the second act to just create tension before the inevitable chase scene. Agent Red is an antagonist, but not a villain, because she has her own legitimate, and somewhat heartwarming, motivations for what she does, and despite an intimidating appearance, she really means no harm. It’s also extremely helpful that by giving Shaun an alien companion, we can shift focus away from the rest of the flock, which made the last movie way more confusing than it needed to be.
Lu-La also just makes for an interesting character. Her design evokes Dot Warner if she fused with a Troll, only with Wakko’s appetite for junk food (salt & vinegar chips, yum!). This makes for some great slapstick. She can also mimic any sound she hears, which actually aids in the dialogue-free “speech” of both the animal and human cast. This is another improvement over the original. The core cast boils down to a growling dog, a snickering sheep, a grunting human man, a huffy human woman, and an alien that can make any noise. It’s so much easier to associate the various forms of communication with their appropriate characters. These are steps that make this a great visual distraction for the youngest of viewers, many of whom may be non-verbal themselves.
But what about parents? The movie will keep the kids interested (and hopefully quiet) for 85 minutes, but is there anything in there for the grownups? Refreshingly, the answer is yes. While the little ones are engaged in the story, the adults can marvel at the absolute litany of classic sci-fi references peppered throughout the film. The base plot is a bare-bones, non-threatening E.T.. Agent Red has a minion in the form of a discount WALL-e. Musical cues from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The X-Files are used throughout. Nods to Star Wars and Star Trek abound. I finally lost it when the sheep dressed as Daleks and scared a Tom Baker cosplayer coming out of a pay toilet that looked suspiciously like the TARDIS. It’s clear the creative team has a deep love for the genre, and wanted to give the more mature audience a reason to keep paying attention. These are the little things that I really appreciate.
As for the quality of the animation, it’s pretty much the same as anything that comes out of Aardman. The claymation is solid, but no longer revolutionary. It makes you nostalgic for Wallace and Gromit (who have the briefest of cameos in the film’s opening). The most unique touch is the way Shaun’s mouth goes off to one side of his face, particularly when he’s laughing, but apart from that, there’s nothing spectacular on display.
But honestly, it doesn’t need anything all that groundbreaking. This is very much a movie for little, little kids, none of whom would notice if the animation was next level. This is just a nice, funny, and sweet distraction that improves on the confused story structure of the previous film for those of us who don’t watch the TV program. It’s great for small children, and the adults supervising them will get plenty of decent chuckles out of the many homages. It is now submitted for Animated Feature this year, and I wouldn’t be the least bit offended if it got the series a second nomination.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you still enjoy claymation? What would you do if you met an alien? Let me know!
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