Matt Perry

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2019, Richard Phelan and Will Becher)

Farmageddon has so many sci-fi TV and movie references it’s hard to keep track. The whole thing feels like an homage to E.T. as far as the story—an alien (“voiced” by Amalia Vitale; voicing means making noises in Farmageddon, there’s no dialogue) gets stranded on Earth and makes friends with a local who helps them try to get home. In this case, that local is Shaun. The Sheep. He and the alien bond over pizza, which is a totally natural thing for a British sheep and a space alien to bond over, especially since the pizza allows for a lot of sight gags.

Since there’s no dialogue and since the noises the characters make rarely imply exposition—there are occasional newspaper headlines to get across the most impactful events (the nearby town, having sighted the alien spacecraft, is going alien-happy)—the film’s got to do everything visually. Yes, they get away with a lot of infographics. The opening has Shaun and the other sheep running afoul of their sheep dog, Bitzer, who has to put up signs forbidding their various modes of play. They can’t frisbee, they can’t suction cup bow and arrow, they can’t shoot each other out of cannons—Bitzer’s really pushing for no nonsense and it provides the film with its most antagonistic relationship—Bitzer is getting a little tired of Shaun.

Of course, Shaun could care less and thank goodness, because if he were worried about getting in trouble he and the alien wouldn’t set out on an odyssey to find the missing spacecraft and then the movie would be a lot less entertaining. Though, who knows. It’s entirely possible directors Phelan and Becher—and screenwriters Mark Burton and Jon Brown—could come up with enough fun around the farm, but then we wouldn’t get to go to the alien hunters’ secret base. With the exception of the boss, all of the (presumably) government alien hunters are in their yellow hazmat suits, which makes them entirely indistinguishable from one another and perfect for anonymous physical comedy. If it weren’t moving so briskly, one could slow and marvel at the artistry on display in Farmageddon’s stop-motion, but also how the filmmakers are able to so deftly toggle between popular sci-fi references and the physicality of the characters. The story itself is fairly simple. Once Shaun and the alien leave the farm, they’re simultaneously in danger from Bitzer—who’s in a middle of new mission of the Farmer (Farmer runs the farm, Bitzer is the good dog who manages the sheep, Shaun is one of the sheep, there I explained it) when he discovers his escaped charge in the wild—and the alien hunters. Only thanks to the Farmer’s scheme, which involves turning the farm into an amusement park with an alien theme (“Farmageddon,” they’re able to get away with the title because the Farmer obviously wouldn’t give it a good name), Bitzer’s in a spacesuit outfit and the alien hunters go after him too.

Burton and Brown introduce the eventual resolution about midway through the second act and keep reminding the audience. Farmageddon’s a family film without ever pandering to the kids or getting too dumb for the adults—they take such deep dives on the sci-fi references, it’s hard to imagine anyone, child or adult, getting all the references at first glance—it’s a simple narrative, smartly executed. The second act, which takes the heroes back to the alien hunters’ lair, does drag a little. The first act is all about entertaining, the third act is all about entertaining. The second act, which puts Shaun and the alien through various physical and emotional hardships—not to mention the alien hunter boss has got a very affecting origin story and one of the film’s bigger missteps is not addressing its treatment of her better. It does a little work at it, which, sure, can be enough, but there are definite missed opportunities and making the film’s only truly malevolent villain a career-minded woman has some optics to it.

Alien hunter boss has this little robot assistant who’s almost a significant supporting player then isn’t. It’s just a frequently utilized sight gag, though it does eventually serve to lighten the boss a little, which is good.

Farmageddon is always good. Even taking the difficult to describe with a pithy adjective second act and the alien hunter boss into account, it’s never like it’s not good. It’s always inventive, always imaginative. Seeing how they integrate digital effects with the stop-motion is cool; Sim Evan-Jones’s editing and Charles Copping’s photography are exquisite. They need to be to work with the stop-motion. Excellent direction.

The soundtrack could be better. It’s… too pragmatic. Likable but never charming and Shaun is nothing if not charming.

It’s a delight. Not a “insert well-chosen superlative” delight here, but a delight nonetheless. How can it not be. It’s Shaun the Sheep on an adventure with someone who cannot bleat (actually, the alien can; its mimicry power is constantly amusing), doesn’t miss a trick, doesn’t miss a beat.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Phelan and Will Becher; screenplay by Mark Burton and Jon Brown, based on an idea by Richard Starzak and the character created by Nick Park; director of photography, Charles Copping; edited by Sim Evan-Jones; music by Tom Howe; production designer, Matt Perry; produced by Paul Kewley; released by StudioCanal.

Starring Justin Fletcher (Shaun), John Sparkes (Bitzer), Amalia Vitale (Lu-La) and John Sparkes (The Farmer).


Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015, Mark Burton and Richard Starzak)

Shaun the Sheep Movie runs just under ninety minutes. There’s a lot impressive about the film (not least being writer-directors Burton and Starzak never using dialogue, just vocal inferences), but the second half moves at a startlingly great pace. Shaun is the finest physical comedy in years, with the directors figuring in not just inventive plot developments, but perfectly timed jokes. Given it’s stop motion, the timing doubly has to be perfect.

The story has Shaun (the titular Sheep) having to go to the big city to rescue his farmer, who’s ended up in the big city due to Shaun’s shenanigans. The style of Shaun–it’s a spin-off of Wallace and Gromit–allows for some great suspensions of disbelief, the easiest being the evil animal control guy falling for a sheep in lady clothes and the most difficult being Shaun and company being able to read.

Or vice versa. That mileage may vary, but there’s never much time spent on that disbelief because the animators capture perfect human moments. Often in animals.

The first half is a little bumpy and has a couple too on the nose music montages, but the montages always recover.

It’s beautifully made–great photography from Charles Copping and Dave Alex Riddett, great editing from Sim Evan-Jones. And the Aardman animators, no surprise, do a fantastic job on the stop motion.

Shaun the Sheep Movie is simultaneously precious, small, outlandish and rambunctious. Burton and Starzak deliver a rather special, rather spectacular motion picture.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak; directors of photography, Charles Copping and Dave Alex Riddett; edited by Sim Evan-Jones; music by Ilan Eshkeri; production designer, Matt Perry; produced by Julie Lockhart and Paul Kewley; released by StudioCanal.

Starring Justin Fletcher (Shaun / Timmy), John Sparkes (The Farmer / Bitzer), Omid Djalili (Trumper), Richard Webber (Shirley), Kate Harbour (Timmy’s Mum / Meryl), Tim Hands (Slip), Andy Nyman (Nuts), Simon Greenall (Twins) and Emma Tate (Hazel).


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