With Shaun and friends, things are different. They just get on with it, leaving you to work out what’s on their minds – and they do have minds, along with an unquenchable desire to enjoy life. In the opening moments of Farmageddon, they can be seen in the background, testing the patience of Bitzer, the sheepdog, with a varied program of ways to alleviate boredom. Hot-air ballooning and shooting one another out of cannons are just a couple of their diversions until spoilsport Bitzer shepherds them back into the barn for chess and board games.
This orderly routine is not to last. Farmageddon is Aardman’s version of a sci-fi movie and Mossy Bottom Farm is about to become the landing site of an alien spaceship. The country is in uproar and MAD, the Ministry of Alien Detection, springs into action, sending out a Hazmat team under the control of the fearsome Agent Red. An angular creation wearing a black business suit and a gimlet-eyed expression, she’s clearly relishing the prospect of mounting a full-scale War of the Worlds.
The Farmer, in contrast, sees the spaceship as a business opportunity and he sets Shaun and the rest of the sheep to work constructing a theme park, undeterred by the fact his ambition is exceeding their ability to make it happen.
Shaun, however, has a secret. He’s befriended the ship’s only passenger, a small pastel-coloured creature with floppy ears, a sparkly shimmer and a mischief-making urge that eclipses his own. He’s suddenly thrust into the position of being the most sensible person in the room – or rather, the village, for Lu-La the alien is an enthusiastic explorer with a special fondness for sweet shops and supermarkets. That, coupled with one or two superpowers, is keeping them both very busy.
Farmageddon is the second stop-motion animated feature to star Shaun, a Nick Park creation, since he first made his mark disrupting the lives of Wallace and Gromit in the short A Close Shave (1995) and its directors, Aardman veterans Will Becher and Richard Phelan, are out to enhance his status as a star by giving him a large canvas to show off his talents. They say they prepared for this by studying sci-fi films down the decades, but it’s clear Spielberg and Kubrick are their favourites for they have stacked the film with parodied borrowings from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We get the portentous score and a string of shots compose in epic style. And there are a few James Bond echoes, as well.
And inevitably, there’s an E.T.-like finale – although it steers clear of inviting you to shed a tear. That’s another of Aardman’s charms. Its house style demands sentiment can go only so far before comedy breaks in to lighten the mood. Aardman producers say it’s a British thing and they’re probably right. Whatever it is, it makes a refreshing change from the Disney ethos, which goes the other way, laying on a power ballad to pump up the emotional levels whenever it’s thought they need a bigger boost than they’re getting already.
Aardman prefers the deadpan approach, helped by the fact its puppeteers, animators and editors can do so much with a single, well-timed gesture. Never mind about the words, Shaun’s body language is all he needs to win you over and raise a laugh.