Although Katie Taylor has never been a household name, her interviews for this film convey a clear sense of the life she ultimately gave up for the Film School Africa program. Taylor’s credits range from award-winning dramas (The Descendants, Milk) to blockbusters (Spider-Man 3), a testament to the pure love of film she espouses whenever she isn’t talking about her students. In fact, we are told early on that the idea Film School Africa was conceived during her visit to the poor township of Kayamandi in 2008. Here, Taylor met a young man who said he was born to be a filmmaker despite having no knowledge, money, or equipment to realise this goal. After returning to Kayamandi with cameras, laptops and a modest lesson plan, she discovered other residents who shared this passion.
I imagine anyone reading this would likely agree on the power and value of cinema. This is what makes FILM SCHOOL AFRICA’s documentary format such a smart idea, as the audience is unambiguously shown and told the impact Taylor’s classes have on her students. For instance, one student casts his parents in an autobiographical short depicting an argument between the pair from his childhood. The experience allows his mother to realise not only how vividly her son had remembered this event, but its impact. Given Taylor largely focused on adapting students’ stories into traditional narratives, the interview-heavy approach adopted by Pfaff here is not the most obvious choice. Yet ironically, the history of the program feels so much like something out of a film that I might not have believed it were true otherwise.
The program grows following Taylor’s permanent relocation to South Africa, eventually hiring additional staff and offering classes at three locations. Subsequently, Pfaff spends most of FILM SCHOOL AFRICA’s second half focused on a single group of students: Sihle, Repro, TK and Juan. This cohort coincidentally represents four different cultural heritages, giving the viewer an insight into the dynamics and contrasts between communities. Most interestingly, Juan, an Afrikaner, has never been to a township and is visibly nervous when going to Kayamandi to shoot. Meanwhile, Sihle and Repro grew up in similarly impoverished areas; thankfully, this merely leads to some teasing and suggests that the youth of South Africa will be able to overcome any lingering divisions from the apartheid era.
Nevertheless, my enjoyment at seeing the four students successfully premiere their films to family and friends was slightly diminished by the relative lack of attention paid to most of Film School Africa’s early adopters. An especially glaring example of this is Molathise, a young man who is not properly introduced until after his tragic death. I think this is largely a structural issue given the ‘main’ quartet are absent for so much of the film’s first half, but other stories do feel strangely unfinished. In fact, Gasthon, one of Pfaff’s first interview subjects, went on to become a staff member and launched the program in his own community. This would’ve been a perfect (if once again, almost too good to be true) epilogue, but isn’t in the film. I looked up Film School Africa’s website and discovered it for myself.
FILM SCHOOL AFRICA effortlessly keeps the audience invested in its subjects and will have you feeling optimistic about our ability to tell our own stories. My (very minor) issues aside, it’s a charming debut from Nathan Pfaff which is perfect for anyone looking to explore South African history and cultures and enjoy every minute of it.
In this second outing the Farmer’s dog Bitzer is in his usual adversarial relationship with Shaun, his young cousin Timmy and all the other sheep who live at Mossy Bottom Farm. But then a new character drops in – literally. Lu-La is a glowing blue alien whose spaceship lands in a field not far from the farm, much to the horror of Farmer John and his dog Bingo who are enjoying a walk and some takeaways. Fleeing the alien invasion, Farmer John drops his bag of chips which is promptly consumed by Lu-La who becomes an immediate fan of junk food. Her search for more treats leads her to a pizza delivery guy who’s taking pizzas to Mossy Bottom Farm and, so, in a scene reminiscent of Eliot and ET, Shaun and Lu-La meet and bond over a handful of pizza crusts. And like ET, Lu-La just wants to go home... and like Eliot, Shaun is determined to help her get there.
Meanwhile, the whole town of Mossington has UFO fever and while the Farmer hatches a plan to cash in on that fever by building a UFO theme-park (called Farmageddon), the incompetent, hazmat-suited agents of the Ministry of Alien Detection (its acronym is no accident) is investigating the sighting led by Agent Red and her trusty sidekick, a robot that bears a striking resemblance to Wall-E. But there’s more to Agent Red than we first suspect, as becomes clear later in the movie.
The genius of this movie is the simplicity with which it communicates its ideas, its narrative and the relationships between the characters. To all intents and purposes, it’s a silent movie, using strong visual imagery, vocal sounds, music and clever juxtaposition to get its ideas across. In fact, in recognition of its silent movie DNA it portrays the MAD Agents in the style of Mack Senate’s Keystone Cops (1912-1917) and makes a cute reference to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936).
But these aren’t the only movie references that await the film-savvy viewer. Beyond its very obvious parallels with ET: The Extraterrestrial, the whole film is littered with echoes of films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (or ‘furred’ kind as the poster suggests), 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Great Escape, Jaws, James Bond, Doctor Who, The X-Files and more. Plus there are more Easter-eggs than the eagle-eyed viewer could poke a stick at: the local Garage is called H.G.Wheels, the brand of the Farmer’s jam is Roswell, and so much more. And if all this sounds like it’s likely to go well above the heads of a four to seven-year-old audience, then that’s exactly the point. This is not a kid’s film to be tolerated by adults; it’s a film made for kids and adults alike and it succeeds in this admirably.
As is generally the case with an Aardman movie, the stop-motion animation is excellent as are the visuals and in addition to a sweeping old-school movie score by Tom Howe, the soundtrack features a host of toe-tapping songs including its theme song LAZY written by Howe and performed by Kylie Minogue and the Vaccines. (and if you stick around for the end credits, you’ll be rewarded by a final musical gag).
As a franchise, A Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon succeeds where many others might fail. Not only did the first Shaun The Sheep film successfully make the transition from seven-minute episodes to a feature length story, this sequel (it’s more second story than a sequel) doesn’t lose any of the momentum established by the first one, nor does it feel like it’s cashing in on that film’s box office success. As derivative as the humour needs to be in terms of its many references to other films and pop culture, the screenplay by Jon Brown and Mark Burton is original enough to feel fresh and engaging and, within the bounds of a film for little kids, manages to touch on some strong thematic ideas especially through the character of Agent Red whose backstory and character arc is all about sticking to what you know to be true even if everyone else is laughing at you.
My one quibble is that the idea that Lu-La becomes almost immediately addicted to junk food is a very topical and one that relates so importantly to the kids who see it and yet, even though the idea is continued throughout the film for laughs, it’s potential health impact is never really addressed. Not that I’m looking for a didactic message here, but it seemed like this idea was ripe for a deeper resonance with the lives of its audience. It’s one missed moment within a film that is made up of so many moments that are bang on target.
It's easy to point to Pixar when we want to find examples of leading-edge animation and exceptional storytelling with incisive, clever humour and sophisticated depth of emotion. A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon consolidates Aardman’s place right up there with Pixar at the top of the pile of some good but many mediocre children’s animations. It’s reassuring to see both Pixar and Aardman continuing to treat the younger filmgoer with respect by making great films that acknowledge their ability to deal with intelligent and complex themes and ideas which recognise that they deserve rich and exceptional film-going experiences just as much as the adults who accompany them.
The film begins in the jungle where Ahkeeba (Treva Etienne) a procurer of ancient artefacts is hightailing it away from a primitive tribe with a large stone ‘black egg’ that he’s liberated from the tribes ancient ceremony of worship and sacrifice to a spider-like deity. A bit later, as he delivers the black egg to the rural home of Walter Clark (Bruce Davidson) an invalid collector of mostly stolen treasures, there is a disagreement over their deal and Ahkeeba smashes the egg unwittingly releasing a giant spider with venomous intent (that doesn’t end well for him).
Meanwhile, Kara Spencer (Elizabeth Roberts) has arrived from New York to work as a carer for Walter, taking up residence in the house next door with her two kids Jesse (Arman Darbo) and Cambria (Chloe Perrin). Kara is not in a good way, haunted by the death of her other son Stevie in a car crash that was her fault and addicted to pain killers as she tries to deal with her guilt and her grief.
These two stories come together, uneasily, as Kara tries to care for Walter whilst Jesse begins to form a relationship with him presumably as a kind of surrogate father. And as Walter tells Jesse the story of the spider worshipping tribe, the giant spider itself is making itself at home in Kara’s house next door.
What jars with this story is that the elements of the narrative don’t fit well together and ultimately don’t serve the horror that the spider is intended to create. For a start, the title obviously comes from the children’s nursery rhyme about the spider who climbs the spout but gets washed down by the rain. But, even though there’s a little girl who’s afraid of spiders, there’s really nothing in this story that suits the nursery rhyme reference (despite there being spooky voices singing the rhyme in the trailer, which doesn’t happen in the movie).
Secondly, the idea of a white western man procuring sacred artefacts from primitive tribes is a great starting point for a horror story if it delved into the propriety of such acts and, classically, used the spider trope as way of the collector getting his comeuppance. That almost happens here – there’s a nice scene between Jesse and Walter when Jesse returns an object he’s stolen, and Walter calls him a thief. Jesse comes straight back at the old man pointing out that his ‘collecting’ is no different. But that’s about as far as this idea goes before it gets swamped by the final story element which, of course, is Kara’s drug addiction and guilt over her dead child. As a set up for a mother who must ultimately face the giant spider, this backstory and character flaw gets in the way of the horror story and fails to fuel its suspense.
It's a shame that these elements don’t form a more cohesive narrative spine, because many of the other aspects of the film work quite well. It’s nicely shot by Marcos Durian and the special effects overseen by Dan Rebert provide some nicely icky and gooey spider secretions and the spider itself is pleasingly non-CGI (even if the creature work is at times a bit stilted). There are some good scary moments that work fine but would be all the more terrifying if they were better embedded in the narrative.
The performances are solid and the presence of more experienced actors like Bruce Davidson (X-Men, Apt Pupil, Willard) and Denise Crosby (Ray Donovan, Deep Impact, Star Trek: Next Generation) add some gravitas to the cast and Gallo’s direction keeps things moving at a good pace.
Itsy Bitsy may not be the most satisfying flick in the cannon of spider-horror, but it does offer an entertaining and occasionally scary night in front of the screen.
Itsy Bitsy will be available on home-entertainment through Eagle Entertaimnet in March 2020.