Nick Park

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).


A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit (1989, Nick Park)

A Grand Day Out is about as close to pure magic as a movie can get. It’s this fantastic story, gentle in the right parts, sharp in the right parts, but it’s also this adorable and technically masterful bit of animation. Director Park brings this delightful Britishness to it; from Peter Sallis’s performance to the comedic portrayal of British lifestyle. Sallis’s Wallace is a self-aware caricature. Park’s attention to detail isn’t just to the stop motion animation, it’s also to the story.

But then there’s the subplot about the moon robot who really wants to go to Earth and ski. It’s got a lovely story too; because it’s a gadget, Park is able to do a lot more with it’s physicality. So Day Out goes from being a situation comedy, albeit a fantastical one, to a slapstick comedy, albeit a fantastical one.

Park’s storytelling instincts are key. The way he lets the Wallace and Gromit opening story tapper off while slowly bringing in the robot makes Day Out grand. Park’s enthusiasm for the project never dampens–less gadgets in the second half, but more action–and it translates to the viewer.

The whole production’s excellent, of course, from Julian Nott’s music to Rob Copeland’s editing. A Grand Day Out flows beautifully. Park’s composition, the way he’s able to imply movement through sound, he makes the story excel at every moment of animating pragmatism.

Like I said, pure magic.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written, directed and photographed by Nick Park; edited by Rob Copeland; music by Julian Nott; released by Channel 4.

Starring Peter Sallis (Wallace).


Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005, Nick Park and Steve Box)

So how does Nick Park do feature-length? He does really good.

The Wallace and Gromit adventures are always good (is there one that’s less than the rest, I think so, but can’t remember which one), so I wasn’t worried about The Curse of the Were-Rabbit in that way. Maybe I wasn’t worried about Were-Rabbit at all. I suppose, during the endless previews for shitty “family” movies, there was a tingling of possible badness, but it went away during the the opening credits of Were-Rabbit.

Wallace and Gromit are audience proprietary… people show you the Wallace and Gromit movies. When you meet another person who loves them, you sort of nod. There’s no secret handshake, but it’s implied. I suppose that’s the worst worry of Were-Rabbit, that it would somehow fail and Wallace and Gromit would then fail. Nick Park’s done an amazing thing–he’s managed never to disappoint and Park’s got a really varied audience.

I don’t know, necessarily, that I want another Wallace and Gromit feature, though. I want the same methods in making it applied to short films, just so we get more stories. Still, it’s amazing how much Park got away with–he assumes the audience has a real familiarity with the characters, something you probably aren’t supposed to do with films of this nature, something I’m sure DreamWorks had went into a fit about (they also wanted to replace Wallace’s voice).

I don’t really know what else to say about it.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Nick Park and Steve Box; written by Box, Park, Mark Burton and Bob Baker; directors of photography, Dave Alex Riddett and Tristan Oliver; edited by David McCormick and Gregory Perler; music by Julian Nott; produced by Claire Jennings, Carla Shelley, Peter Lord, David Sproxton and Park; released by DreamWorks Animation.

Starring Peter Sallis (Wallace), Ralph Fiennes (Victor Quartermaine), Helena Bonham Carter (Lady Campanula Tottington), Peter Kay (P.C. Mackintosh), Nicholas Smith (the Rev. Clement Hedges) and Liz Smith (Mrs. Mulch).


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