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.