Do you like stop-motion animation? I love stop-motion animation. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love stop-motion. From King Kong to the California Raisins—put that good stuff straight into my veins.
The current champion of stop-motion is Aardman Animations, which mostly works in a brand of modeling clay called Plasticine that is equal parts cutting-edge and charmingly handmade. I stumbled across an Aardman short called The Wrong Trousers (1993) on PBS in high school, and I was hooked. The film follows a pathologically British inventor named Wallace and his long-suffering dog, Gromit. In Trousers and their other various adventures, Wallace displays a profound lack of proportionality: he builds Rube Goldberg inventions when a butter knife would do, he buys robotic pants to help paint his walls, and he constructs a rocket to go to the Moon when he runs out of cheese. He also lives in a universe where everyone has more teeth than could possibly fit in their mouths.
I love Aardman’s stuff for two big reasons: I love the way it looks, and I love its worldview. An Aardman production combines near-miraculous feats of stop-motion with characters who mostly have resting “durrr” face. Aardman’s clay tears glisten like real water, but since running is a physical impossibility for stop-motion figures, they just walk hilariously fast instead. I love that the chickens in Chicken Run (2000) use their “hands” to cram feed into their mouths even though it would probably have been easier to show them pecking like real birds. The animators went out of their way to be inaccurate. In the universe of Aardman, “charming” trumps “realistic.” (Also, Aardman did the 1986 music video for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” in conjunction with—holy cow—the Brothers Quay.)
Aardman’s view of the world is essentially one large English village, in which most conflicts come from absent-minded eccentrics whose eccentricities get in each other’s way. Villains are few and far between, and they only exert the influence they do because the rest of us are too polite or timid to stand up to them. While Aardman short films focus on just a few characters, its features tend to star whole villages of cross-eyed but well-meaning dingbats. If it’s not a village, it’s a chicken coop or a pirate ship or a band of hunter-gatherers. The filmmakers have boundless affection for their googly-eyed subjects, forgive them their failings, and celebrate their idiosyncrasies. To quote Mozart, “love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.”
Compare this outlook to, say, SouthPark, which is forever sneering at the stupidity of people who dare try to make the world better. Aardman says that we’re all of us stupid from time to time, so be patient and kind. We’re doing the best we can with the neuroses we have.
Dude, weren’t you supposed be talking about Farmageddon?
And so we come to A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, which is essentially a breezy remake of E.T. This time, instead of a lost alien befriending a human boy, the alien befriends a mischievous sheep named Shaun.
Otherwise, the setup is pure Aardman: a village, a farm, and various eccentrics. The villager who first spots the alien spaceship risks death to salvage his still-cooling French fries; a delivery guy loses his pizza because he’s shooing a frog out of the street so that it won’t get run over; and a farmer’s reaction to First Contact is that it’s a way to get a new wheat thresher. (This comes across not as crass materialism but the foible of a man who lives to thresh wheat. And sit around in his underwear.)
We first met Shaun in the 1995 short A Close Shave when Wallace and Gromit rescued him from a robot dog named Preston who had malevolent plans involving knitwear. Shaun has since gone on to a franchise of his own consisting of 7-minute shorts and, now, his second feature film. At the beginning of Farmageddon, he spends his days on the farm instigating mischief with his fellow sheep and generally being a nuisance to the farmer’s petulant sheepdog. But when Shaun finds a scared extraterrestrial hiding in the barn, he decides it’s time to grow up and help his new friend escape from the army of dunces in hazmat suits that has invaded his village. (The amount of humor Farmageddon milks from hazmat suits is without peer.)
Also—and this is cool—because our protagonist is an animal, no one talks in Farmageddon. The animals don’t talk, because they’re animals, but when the humans talk, mostly we just hear very British grunts and noises. So no wisecracking sidekicks, no comedians riffing on each other in recording booths, and pop-culture references are limited mostly to gentle sight gags in the background.
A few nits
Second-tier Aardman is still a grand time at the movies, but for all its charm, Farmageddon is second-tier Aardman. My wife summed it up like this: although every Aardman movie we’ve seen so far has been kid-friendly, this is the first one she felt was a kiddie movie.
Children may love the look of Aardman’s Creature Comforts (1991), in which interviews with real Britons are dubbed over stop-motion animals, but they probably won’t understand the lives of quiet desperation those interviews include. Hugh Grant’s protagonist in The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012) is essentially going through a mid-career crisis, and I question whether any unmarried person can truly grasp the relationship between the farm couple in Chicken Run.
Similarly, while Gromit may be remarkably intelligent, he’s still, at his core, a dog, and when we first met Shaun way back in the ’90s, he was still a sheep. But in Farmageddon, he’s become a child surrogate (or, as my wife says, “first-season Bart Simpson”). I still like Shaun, but I liked him better as a sheep. And as is often the case in kid’s movies, jokes and themes can sometimes linger longer than they need to so that audiences who haven’t spent 30,000 hours watching movies will still grok them.
(As befits a children’s movie, Farmageddon also dispenses with Aardman’s blasé attitude toward accidental death: think of the pre-title soccer game in Early Man (2018) in which no one cares when herp-derping players fall into flaming pits or are crushed by boulders.)
This is more of a nit than a gripe, and the relationship between Shaun and the sheepdog—which is essentially that of a rambunctious child and a bossy-but-well-intentioned older brother—is relatable.
Another nit is that Aardman has been gradually adding more and more digital effects to its stop-motion films. This is fine for backgrounds and certain special effects, but the figures and settings in Farmageddon are a little too polished, especially when compared to Aardman’s earlier, ruddier work. This somewhat diminishes the charm of stop-motion: “human hands made this,” good stop-motion seems to say, “not a giant corporation with locations in Los Angeles and Seoul.” As much as I enjoy Pixar movies like Up and Inside Out, their too-perfect images are always a hump I have to get over, and I don’t want the same thing to happen to Aardman.
Despite playing in cinemas in Europe, Farmageddon made its US debut last Friday on Netflix. This was the same day that Sonic the Hedgehog opened in thousands of theaters across the country. Why? Because life is unfair, that’s why. Now let’s comfort ourselves with some Wensleydale on crackers. I hear it tastes like the Moon.