Photo: ‘A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon’/Netflix
One of the surprises of this year’s Oscar nominations came in the Best Animated Feature category. Aside from the obvious choices (‘Soul’, ‘Wolfwalkers’, ‘Onward’, and ‘Over the Moon’), the fifth slot was filled by an unlikely pick: ‘A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon’. I say unlikely in that the Aardman Animations film debuted as a Netflix Original title a little over a year ago last February, and the Academy tends to favor more recent releases (and it was theatrically released in the UK…almost two years ago). And the months following its release saw more high-profile animated fare come out, like ‘Trolls World Tour’ and ‘The Croods: A New Age’ (which got the nomination in the equivalent category at this year’s Golden Globes).
Of the films nominated for Best Animated Feature this year, this was the only one I hadn’t seen yet. It’s not that I was avoiding it, it just wasn’t on my radar. But I decided to finally give Shaun the Sheep’s second feature outing a shot. And it was worth it: ‘A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon’ is a very sweet and enjoyable movie that’s worth watching.
The Origin and Premise of ‘Shaun the Sheep’
If you have kids of your own there’s a decent chance that you’re already more than familiar with this series — if the view counts for episodes and entire seasons uploaded on YouTube are any indication. But just in case you’re not, here’s a brief explainer.
Needless to say Shaun the Sheep’s been around for a while. He originated as a character in the 1995 Oscar-winning animated short film ‘A Close Shave’, produced by Aardman and featuring their signature characters Wallace & Gromit. His popularity with fans led to him getting his own spin-off show in 2007 which became hugely successful among international viewers, especially in Asia where ‘Shaun the Sheep’ has a huge following. Tourist attractions and exhibits and even theme parks followed, as well as his own movie with 2015’s ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’, and a spin-off aimed at preschoolers called ‘Timmy Time’ which followed Shaun’s baby cousin Timmy.
Despite this history, you don’t need to have watched the show (available on Netflix and Prime Video) or the 2015 movie to enjoy ‘Farmageddon’: in fact, the first act of the film also succinctly lays out the show’s premise.
Shaun (Justin Fletcher, who also voices Timmy) is a mischievous and very clever sheep who lives with his flock at Mossy Bottom Farm, a small northern English farm. Life at the farm is peaceful but it’s also dull and mundane, so Shaun and his flock spend their days engaging in various hijinks to try to liven things up while avoiding being spotted by the Farmer (John Sparkes), much to the frequent dismay of the loyal and long-suffering sheepdog Bitzer (also Sparkes).
‘Farmageddon’ Expands the World of Shaun the Sheep
In ‘Farmageddon’ things take a turn when a UFO crash lands in the nearby woods one night and the alien aboard finds its way to Mossy Bottom. The alien is revealed to be the very sweet and adorable toddler Lu-La (Amalia Vitale), and she and Shaun quickly become friends. With the town excited over the news of a UFO sighting, the Farmer sees a money-making opportunity for his farm as the Ministry of Alien Detection led by the dogged Agent Red (Kate Harbour) descends upon the town to investigate. And Shaun must now help Lu-La get to her spaceship and help her find her way back home.
As far as plot is concerned, it’s pretty straightforward — basically, a riff on ‘E.T’, with some references to other sci-fi works like ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, ‘The X-Files’, and of course ‘Doctor Who’ (this film is full of sci-fi references that might go over kids’ heads). But that’s what ‘Shaun the Sheep’ is as a whole: it’s not trying to pry at your emotions or pretend that it’s thematically deep or profound. It just wants to make you laugh and entertain for a good 90-or-so minutes. And that’s perfectly fine.
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‘Shaun the Sheep’ Brings Very Accessible Laughs
To answer the question of “is it funny?”, the answer is “yes”. Like in the shows, the comedic tone here is equal parts slapstick and silent comedy. There’s very little to no dialogue at all: characters (even human ones) communicate with animal sounds or grunts, and various wordless gestures. And that’s part of the fun: with no dialogue, it’s all physical comedy, and there’s a liveliness in how the characters behave and express themselves that makes it quite fun to watch. There’s also the universal appeal factor, as physical comedy can more easily transcend cultural or language barriers. The shenanigans that Shaun and his friends find themselves in are fun and wacky, and there are some pretty inspired sight gags.
Ultimately the movie, directed by Will Becher and Richard Phelan, is a collection of physical comedy sequences with a very simple plot connecting them together, so it basically comes down to comedic timing. Compared to most kids’ entertainment nowadays, this one’s very well-paced. There’s a nice rhythm to the various comedic sequences in how they know when to let a moment sit and when to pick things up; like there’s momentum but it never feels frenetic or overwhelming. It’s just very well-executed and orchestrated.
There’s even a bit of character development here as the usually rambunctious Shaun goes through an arc of learning to be more responsible while he tries to take care of Lu-La. In fact, Shaun and Lu-La’s bond is very sweet and adds a great deal of heart to the proceedings; even the antagonist turns out to be not all bad, with a sympathetic backstory. Overall there’s just a gentle and soothing charm to the film. Honestly, my only real complaint is the overuse of pop music in some parts. They’re not terrible, but they sound very generic and their use here just feels a bit unnecessary. It’s a minor quibble in the face of an overall solid film.
Stop-Motion Animation At Its Finest
And of course, I have to single out the animation work here. When it comes to stop-motion animation, England’s Aardman and the U.S’s Laika (the studio that brought us ‘Coraline’, ‘ParaNorman’, and ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’) are masters of their field. Best known for Wallace & Gromit, the excellent ‘Chicken Run’, and the underrated ‘Arthur Christmas’ (one of their very few CGI-animated films), Aardman is especially known for their use of clay animation and British humor found in all their works.
And looking at something like ‘Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon’, you can see the amount of tangible work and care that Aardman Animations brings to the table. When characters are shown in close-up, you can even vaguely see the thumbprints if you look close enough; there’s a handcrafted/hand-sculpted quality to the proceedings. Their work here continues to be as vivid and masterful as ever, with well-designed characters (Lu-La is especially cute) and environments full of personality and charm. Stop-motion animation can be time-consuming and intensive, but Aardman has always been so good at their work that they make it look effortless. There’s craftsmanship on display here.
It’s not as philosophically ambitious as ‘Soul’ or as visually stunning as ‘Wolfwalkers’, but that doesn’t detract from this film’s effectiveness. ‘A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon’ is simply a blast from start to finish, full of laughs and heart, and is fun for the whole family. And while its chances of winning are pretty slim, it’s still fully deserving of its Oscar nomination and is worth watching.
Directors: Will Becher, Richard Phelan | Screenplay by: Mark Burton, Jon Brown | Story: Richard Starzak | Based on: characters, by Nick Park | Music: Tom Howe | Cinematography: Charles Copping | Editor: Sim Evan-Jones | Production Design: Matt Perry
Cast: Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Amalia Vitale, Kate Harbour, David Holt
By Mario Yuwono
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