So many of the modern movies ostensibly meant tor young kids or labeled as being “family” or “all ages” films aren’t really appropriate for all ages and aren’t going to be interesting to every member of a family. The same can be said for a good number of the shows and series also bearing those or similar labels. Either the humor is overly crude and offensive, the script is stuffed with pop-culture references that will fly over the heads of kids and be dated five minutes after the first screening, or it’s so kinetic it actively impairs the brain’s ability to process information.
A notable exception to that is Aardman Animation’s “Shaun the Sheep” series. Set on a Scottish farm, Shaun is the most precocious of the sheep under The Farmer’s care. He and the others are corralled by the very good dog Blitzer, who simply wants them to follow the rules.
Originally a series airing on the BBC, there’s been one feature length film already and now a second, A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, is available on Netflix in the U.S. after a theatrical release in the U.K.
The plot is just as simple as what’s often found in an episode of the series. Things are relatively quiet on the farm save for the hijinks that Shaun is instigating, which never gets more serious than wanting to score some ice cream from a passing delivery truck. Out of the sky comes an alien, which sets off a series of events that has Shaun and his friends tangling with a government agent hunting extraterrestrials, helping to repair a broken spaceship and building an outer space theme park on the farmer’s land.
Because of the nature of the movie’s story there are a number of subtle nods to sci-fi genre touchstones such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, “Doctor Who” and others. None are so overt as to generate the kind of cheap, guffawing laugh that is the stock and trade of many animated features. No one does a Spock impression, for instance. The appearances of a TARDIS and a few other references are simply there and then they’re not, the writers and directors opting not to underline the joke, unlike some of their Hollywood peers.
With characters that never speak intelligibly it falls to the physical direction of Will Becher and Richard Phelan to convey not only the action but the story. In all the Shaun stories that means lots of sight gags, though never any that rise to the level of anyone being seriously hurt in any way. And even more rewarding than the sci-fi references are those to the long tradition of cinematic physical comedy.
In particular is a scene that is explicitly pulled from Charlie Chaplin’s classic Modern Times. It’s not there as a quick gag, and the character who finds himself winding through the gears of a giant machine isn’t wearing a mustache to make the reference clear. It just happens and is the more wonderful for it.
With so much going on in the world, taking an hour and a half to watch the gentle humor of A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon is good for what ails you. It’s just the kind of calming entertainment that’s greatly needed at the moment. It also uses the history of film and media with a sense of respect instead of exploitation, wanting to build on what’s come before instead of merely borrowing (or stealing) from it.