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Film Review: ‘A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon’

Aardman Animations' first feature-length sequel delightfully resumes the wild-and-woolly adventures of their anarchic ovine hero.

Director:
Richard Phelan, Will Becher
With:
Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Amalia Vitale
Release Date:
Dec 13, 2019

1 hour 27 minutes

No asteroids are hurtling toward Earth in “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon,” though a flying frozen pizza does softly slice the top off an elderly shopper’s hairdo: That’s roughly the level of quirky peril we’re talking about in the latest outing from Aardman Animations, and as usual, the British stop-motion masters cheerfully prove that benign needn’t mean bland. Arriving nearly five years after the Oscar-nominated “Shaun the Sheep Movie” successfully expanded the bucolic “Wallace and Gromit” spinoff to feature length, this baa-lated but baa-guiling sequel — if such puns make you wince, perhaps give the film a wide berth — returns Aardman to winningly offbeat form after last year’s adept but oddly anemic prehistoric adventure “Early Man.”

“Farmageddon” is the first feature-length sequel from an outfit that has experienced steadily diminishing commercial returns since “Chicken Run” raked in $225 million worldwide at the turn of the century. By contrast, “Shaun the Sheep Movie” took in just $106 million, making it Aardman’s all-time lowest grosser until “Early Man” halved that total. On the face of it, it may not therefore seem the likeliest candidate for film franchise treatment. Yet as the youngest-skewing of all Aardman properties — with its mild, mostly non-verbal slapstick giving it endless replay value for very tiny tots — “Shaun’s” ancillary value remains high. Varying the original’s barnyard comedy with a light sci-fi twist that owes more to “E.T.” than the macho blockbuster referenced by the title, “Farmageddon” plays right into that sweet spot, while serving up just enough gentle adult in-jokery to keep the ancients likewise tickled.

Having made their feature directing debut with the previous film, Aardman vets Richard Starzak and Mark Burton have moved into executive producing and writing duties on “Farmageddon,” with another freshman duo, Will Becher and Richard Phelan, now at the helm. Despite the shuffling at the top, the lightly chaotic energy and thumbprints-practically-visible handmade aesthetic of proceedings remains unchanged, as does the no-dialogue directive: It’s the higher-concept storytelling, following its predecessor’s defiantly low-stakes rompery, that feels new. “Farmageddon” announces its more ambitious intentions upfront, as a wonky-looking UFO crash-lands in rural England near Mossy Bottom Farm, where rascally Shaun and his ovine brethren reside under the weary guardianship of watchdog Bitzer.

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Though this introduction flirts gently with “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”-style horror — cue one petrified yokel dropping his fish and chips as he flees a looming shadow — the creature that emerges from the grounded spacecraft couldn’t be less frightening. Candy-pink, floppy-eared and shin-high, eagerly taking in the earthling world with wide, googly eyes, Lu-La is a martian toddler who makes the average Teletubby look like the Xenomorph. She’s naturally an Aardorable match for Shaun and his gang, who swiftly take her into the literal fold: As assorted human authorities set out to find the space invader, while her farmyard friends help her find a path home, madcap games of escape and disguise ensue.

Give or take the extraterrestrial addition, these antics turn out to be par for the course in this franchise: hungry havoc-wreaking in a village supermarket, a joyride in a hijacked tractor, and so on. Every such setpiece is staged with lickety-split comic timing, as well as Aardman’s usual wealth of witty incidentals. Throwaway film parodies check off the likes of “Alien” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” sight gags merge with groansome wordplay — including one two-part joke featuring an actual bull in a china shop — and there’s a winking appreciation for quintessentially British banalities, right down to one visual punchline centered on municipal recycling rules that falls strictly under the “one for the parents” column. Only a soundtrack heavy on pop tracks from British artists ranging from Jorja Smith to the Chemical Brothers sounds out of place, their slick wordiness more disruptive to the film’s unworldly Play-Doh Chaplin spirit than Tom Howe’s infectiously buoyant score.

Some of the droll, satirical peculiarities here may escape non-Brits of all ages. You have to be a local, ideally of a market town like the fictional Mossingham, to appreciate the particular humbug drabness of the rooked-up space theme park that Shaun’s opportunistic owner, Farmer John, opens overnight to capitalize on their community’s close encounter of the third kind. No matter: The great pleasure of these films’ bright, largely wordless slapstick is that it plays universally whilst accommodating all manner of obsessive, idiosyncratic detailing at the edges.

At the heart of “Farmageddon,” meanwhile, is a broad-strokes message advocating both inclusiveness and cultural curiosity: Lu-La may be from another planet, but she’s made of the same plasticine as everyone else, after all. If that seems a pretty obvious takeaway from a kids’ movie, it’s nonetheless a pretty welcome one in a Britain rushing with grim uncertainty toward the Brexit deadline. Whether it follows a literal alien discovering the joys of local junk food, or a rebellious sheep refusing to remain in his pen, Aardman’s latest positively revels in its freedom of movement.

Film Review: 'A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon'

Reviewed at Vue West End, London, Sept. 15, 2019. Running time: 87 MIN.

Production: (Animated — U.K.-France) A Lionsgate (in U.S.)/Studiocanal release of a Studiocanal, Aardman Animations presentation of an Aardman Animations production in association with Anton Capital Entertainment. (International sales: Studiocanal, London.) Producer: Paul Kewley. Executive producers: Mark Burton, Richard Starzak, Peter Lord, Nick Park, Carla Shelley, David Sproxton, Ron Halpern, Didier Lupfer. Co-producer: Richard Beek. Co-executive producers: Sean Clarke, Kerry Lock.

Crew: Directors: Richard Phelan, Will Becher. Screenplay: Mark Burton, Jon Brown, based on an idea by Richard Starzak. Camera (color): Charles Copping. Editor: Sim Evan-Jones. Music: Tom Howe.

With: Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Amalia Vitale, Kate Harbour, David Holt, Chris Morrell, Joe Sugg.

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