If you glance away from Netflix’s A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon for a second, you won’t have any trouble picking up the plot, but you’ll miss at least one joke. Farmageddon rewards the viewer for paying attention, but does so in a less obvious way thanks to the time and care that Aardman Animations puts into the film. Seemingly superfluous details make the world of young sheep Shaun (Justin Fletcher) feel lived-in, and help tell the story, which is told entirely without dialogue. The Minions are not this poetic.
Shaun has been around for a while. After originating in the 1995 Wallace and Gromit film A Close Shave and getting his own TV series in 2007, Shaun hit the silver screen in 2015 with Shaun the Sheep Movie. Despite that storied history, there’s no prior knowledge necessary to enjoy Farmageddon, directed by Will Becher and Richard Phelan, which eschews oodles of exposition in favor of setting up solid introductions for its characters solely through action and expression.
In the new movie, Shaun, the mischievous leader of his flock, spends most of his days trying to make things fun for his fellow sheep on Mossy Bottom Farm, and thereby getting on the nerves of the farm’s watchdog, Bitzer (John Sparkes). Things take a turn when a U.F.O. lands in the woods nearby, and the alien aboard it makes it way to Mossy Bottom. The extraterrestrial turns out to be the sweet Lu-La (Amalia Vitale), who quickly warms to the sheep (who warm to her in turn), and enlists them to help her get back home. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Alien Detection mobilizes after the sight of Lu-La’s ship crashing makes the news.
There’s an antagonist in the form of M.A.D. Agent Red (Kate Harbour), whose pursuit of Lu-La is relentless, but this is an Aardman movie, meaning that even the villain has some kind of understandable motivation, and isn’t really all bad. The stakes aren’t the battle between good and evil so much as just getting back home, and finding a safe space among those who love you. Even stick-in-the-mud Bitzer isn’t all bad. To that end, Farmageddon almost serves as the Incredibles 2 of the Shaun universe, as the usually rambunctious sheep learns how to take care of someone, just as Mr. Incredible, normally out doing superhero business, finally had to stay home and learn how to be a good father.
Farmageddon is a novelty in the contemporary landscapes of children’s movies. It’s stop-motion animated, for one, rather than computer animated, and the lack of dialogue means that the movie doesn’t rely on quips in order to keep its audience entertained. The pleasure of the movie comes from simply watching the character work, which is non-stop (the way Lu-La’s ears light up, the degree of work Bitzer’s tiny eyes have to put in), and the Rube Goldberg-esque shapes the characters have to bend themselves into in order to get from point A (an idyllic countryside farm) to point B (outer space). As they do, references to E.T., 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and even Doctor Who and The X-Files creep into the proceedings, serving as Easter eggs for science-fiction fans and gateways to the genre for younger viewers.
It’s the more mundane details, however, that make Farmageddon particularly fun to watch. A farmer running from an alien force drops his chips, then runs back to have just one — and is foiled by just how hot they are. A bull is sucked up by a U.F.O. — and then dropped into a shop that just so happens to sell china. As a figure drops from a great height, letters from a sign above it also fall to spell out, “NO.”
The unimportant details are what make the film so compelling to watch, and why the biggest computer-animated blockbusters (save Pixar’s best work) can’t compare. But that’s what Aardman has always been good at: The company’s films are made with a tangible love. As time-consuming and intensive as stop-motion animation may be, the actual feats put on screen have a quality of effortlessness to them, and they’re full of little bits and bobs that don’t have to be there — but are, for the love of the craft.
A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon is streaming on Netflix now.