Shaun The Sheep, the children’s series about a mischief-making ovine made of modeling clay and cotton wool, is estimated to have aired in some 180 countries, which in theory would put it just behind the Beatles and the English language in the ranks of successful British exports. Not that the series has ever promised anything more than silly good times for young viewers and their minders. Episodes of Shaun The Sheep are simple and short enough to capture the attention spans of 4- and 5-year olds (the show’s target demo), and their stop-motion animation and humor are amusing enough to draw in older kids and grown-ups. More importantly, Shaun never says a word. He and the rest of the residents of Mossy Bottom Farm—including the long-suffering sheepdog Bitzer and the oblivious human known only as The Farmer—communicate exclusively in baas, humphs, whimpers, growls, or mumbled gibberish. Swap out the title sequence and song, and you can show Shaun The Sheep just about anywhere.
This apparent simplicity goes a long way toward making the ram’s second feature-length outing, A Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, look like the right-thinking person’s alternative to Everything That’s Wrong With Today’s Animated Films, answering every grownup’s grumbles about celebrity voices and impersonal computer animation. The house aesthetic of Aardman Animations, the stop-motion studio behind Shaun, Wallace & Gromit, and animated features like Chicken Run and Pirates! Band Of Misfits, has retained its handmade qualities. As critics have loved to point out since the early short films of Nick Park first brought Aardman to international attention, you can actually see the animators’ smudged fingerprints on the Plasticine characters—though they are much less conspicuous now than they were in the ’90s.
The word “quaint” is often tossed around in describing this style. A lot of it probably comes down to the influence of Park, an animator with a penchant for puns, genre parodies, English eccentricities, Rube Goldberg gadgetry, and worlds populated by scheming animals and dim-witted humans with monstrously big teeth. Shaun The Sheep has always been a kind of Park Lite. Though it started out as a spin-off of Park’s Wallace & Gromit short “A Close Shave,” the show was largely developed and supervised by Richard Starzak (a.k.a. Richard Goleszowski), the creator of the absurdist cult claymation series Rex The Runt, with the help of Alison Snowden and David Fine, the husband-and-wife team behind Bob And Margaret, which readers of a certain age may remembered from its run on Comedy Central in the late ’90s. (It’s worth noting that neither Rex The Runt nor Bob And Margaret were exactly preschooler-friendly shows.)
Starzak co-wrote and co-directed the first Shaun The Sheep movie (simply titled Shaun The Sheep Movie) and gets a story credit on Farmageddon, though the directors this time around are Will Becher and Richard Phelan. Strangely, the film feels more indebted to Wallace & Gromit than its TV source material ever did—an influence that’s present in everything from the the self-effacing wordplay of the title to the lighthearted sci-fi riffing of the story.
Park-ian whirligig contraptions eventually make an appearance, too, in the form of the eponymous Farmageddon, a rinky-dink amusement park devised by the Farmer to cash in on the UFO-mania that has gripped the nearby town of Mossingham. The cause of this craze is the appearance of a flying saucer, piloted by a hungry little alien that has droopy puppy ears and the complexion of a girls’ sneaker. She takes refuge with Shaun and his wooly friends at Mossy Bottom Farm as an alien-catching hazmat team led by a black-suited G-woman arrives, looking out-of-place in such provincial surroundings. Of course, in playing off this American movie imagery, Farmageddon is mostly underscoring its tea-cosy, Welly-boot Britishness.
But the truth is that the film has a lot in common with its obnoxious Hollywood cousins. There may not be any sassy asides or A-list voice actors, but there are montages set to algorithmically generic pop. (There’s also an end credits song by the Croydon rapper Nadia Rose, which includes the immortal line, “Shaun, ya ting’s on fleek.”) The plot is a formulaic formality; it doesn’t sustain the light pace of a Shaun The Sheep episode, but also never reaches the zaniness of the original Wallace & Gromit shorts. And there are pop-culture references (the death knell of animated comedy, we’ve been told) in nearly every scene, even if none of them date from this century: The opening credits alone pay tribute to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and the theremin strains of B sci-fi, with a little Contact thrown in for good measure; later come cheeky homages to 2001: A Space Odyssey, The X-Files, Doctor Who, E.T., and the 1978 hit concept album War Of The Worlds (a.k.a. Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds).
Becher, a longtime Aardman animator, and Phelan, a former storyboard artist, are as good as expected when it comes to handling Shaun’s droll farmyard antics, but they take a passive, workmanlike approach to the hectic genre mashing that has become an Aardman trademark. The budgets and crews have grown since the days of “The Wrong Trousers” and “A Close Shave,” but there is nothing in Farmageddon’s overblown, action-movie-parodying climax that comes within spitting distance of the intricate, Spielberg-meets-Buster-Keaton chase scenes found in those Oscar-winning classic shorts. The late appearance of a transforming robot that bears more than a passing resemblance to RoboCop’s ED-209 comes off as a pale imitation of the Terminator riff at the climax of “A Close Shave”; without that frame of reference, it just seems bizarre.
But here, it is worth stating the obvious: That to most parents of young children, a streaming title like A Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon will represent 86 minutes of screen time that might otherwise have been spent on YouTube videos that star children who live in McMansions in an endless loop of toy-unboxings, gamers whose excitability would under different circumstances suggest the presence of extremely mind-altering drugs, or adults who are unquestionably taking money from whatever shadowy entity makes and markets L.O.L. Surprise! dolls. Being a parent in these nascent 2020s means seeing everything through They Live glasses, all the while trying to not over-parent one’s children by holding them to impossible standards of Luddism and good taste. In that context, Farmageddon doesn’t look too bad.
In fact, Farmageddon—which was released in the U.K. last year but is only now coming to the U.S. through Netflix—has already received overwhelmingly warm reviews at home. It’s mild, inoffensive, and (aside from the songs) never irritating. Yet it seems undeniable that the film is a cut below even such decidedly minor Aardman productions as Early Man. The studio’s best work is infinitely rewatchable, offering up imaginative worlds of stop-motion logic, filled with characters who combine the outlines of drawn cartoons with the texture of hobby materials. But all that Farmageddon delivers is a not-unpleasant distraction for a cold, lazy afternoon.