Review by C.J. Bunce
Only mere seconds into Farmageddon—the next big production from frequent Oscar-winner and stop-motion pioneer Aardman Animations–and viewers will feel the pangs of their favorite classic Steven Spielberg movies, complete with a magical score that has all the beats of a John Williams-esque adventure, thanks to composer Tom Howe. This is a return to the lovable Aardman underdog Shaun the Sheep, star of several series and films who we last saw on the big screen in 2015’s Shaun the Sheep movie. But this time our lovable wooly hero encounters an alien visitor and the resulting effort by directors Will Becher and Richard Phelan with writers Jon Brown, Mark Burton, and Nick Park may be Aardman’s most effective, most lovable, and most far-reaching crowd-pleaser to date. A direct-to-Netflix presentation, it also stands a chance at being a contender for best full-length animated film at next year’s Oscars.
Shaun the Sheep steps in for Spielberg’s Elliott in this modern close encounter with a lovable extra-terrestrial named Lu-la, so adorable that she may even make Baby Yoda go “awww.” The impeccable stop-motion animation viewers expect from Aardman is here, as well as the cast of endearing anthropomorphic farm animals, but the heartfelt story, unthinkably successful chemistry between clay characters, exquisite visual effects, lighting, and cinematography, and an emotional score make for a triumph of sci-fi and family storytelling, proving a common language is not necessary to understand relationships between someone that might be a bit different. Here that’s a sheep and an alien, but the story is effective enough that kids (and attentive adults) will apply the message to everyone. In fact, Aardman proves language isn’t necessary at all–the story is told entirely without spoken English dialogue, relying on expressive visuals, animal voices, and sound effects, making it truly internationally (or intergalactically) enjoyable.
This fun new sci-fi/fantasy adventure begins with a dog guarding his sheep–a motley but crafty band who live at the farm including Shaun–followed by a great homage to Looney Toons classic barnyard antics as the show establishes the farmyard bond between sheep and dog and dog and man. The man and dog– The Farmer and Bitzer–show Aardman going back to its roots, what first made the filmmaker internationally known through its award-winning shorts. Wallace and Gromit could be cousins to this man and dog duo, and anchoring the film with the ensemble here again (as with past Shaun stories) instead of going off in a different direction was a wise choice. It takes a special combination to merge classic animation with expert laugh-out-loud comedy situations, and the creators at Aardman are the closest thing I’ve ever seen to the spirit and creativity of Jim Henson. The story is sweet and can appeal to a variety of audiences. The older crowd can try to spot all the influences, and the young at heart can marvel at Farmageddon′s sheer joyous presentation.
Through subtle and not-so-subtle nods and Easter eggs, the film evokes the awe-inspiring magic of Steven Spielberg movies (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Super 8), and borrows from a fanboy/fangirl’s dream list of nostalgic sci-fi staples, including Explorers, Short Circuit, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Independence Day, Men in Black, The X-Files, Star Trek, Lilo & Stitch, Monsters, Inc., Doctor Who, Aliens, Lost in Space, Harry & the Hendersons, Escape to Witch Mountain, and even The Wicker Man and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
This is not Tom Howe’s first Aardman film score, also creating the music for Early Man (reviewed here). Howe has also worked on dozens of television series, including the up-tempo action of Whiskey Cavalier and the quaint and poignant music of The Great British Baking Show–a myriad of genre scores to be sure, and his themes for Farmageddon reflect the artistry of a master of his craft. Going forward Howe will be the composer everyone should keep an ear out for. The soundtrack is perfect for anyone who appreciates fantastic film scores (it’s available here at Amazon).
For more background on Aardman Animations, check out our review last year of the book A Grand Success! The Aardman Journey, One Frame at a Time, found here.
I love this movie. It’s the best feel-good film in a long time, a film for every audience, and the finest example of stop-motion animation. With tons of heart. Get ready for something great. Watch Farmageddon: A Shaun the Sheep Movie, now exclusively on Netflix in the U.S.