Aardman is the reigning king of stop animation. One frame at a time, they have built an astounding body of work, mostly out of clay. Their animation products express the quintessence of British art. They staked out their greatest commercial success with beloved 2000 film Chicken Run, while their fierce studio independence has allowed them to shape the mold of modern claymation with intricately smart and funny entries that bridge the barrier between silent and sound pictures. Shaun the Sheep (2015) found a right-sized balance — perfectly accessible and also touchingly personal, with a human fingerprint extended to every placement of clay. Where the original brought the sheep to the big city, the new picture delivers aliens right to their farm, playing with grander cinematic and political illusions to emphasize an upscaling.
Aardman has not pulled the wool over our eyes: it’s much of the same. If you did like Shaun the Sheep (and, we all did), then there is plenty to love here. All the same things. What’s new is that Aardman gets to play in science fiction. When the farmhand sees the crop-circle designs of the alien and 2001-referencing tone poem “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” lords itself over the sequence, we know the breadth and high quality of referencing the film entails. It has a lot of fun telling the story that animation, chiefly the British kind, right now, ought to be telling: inclusionary stories about welcoming our neighbors. While the title might cinematically imply Armageddon (1998), Farmageddon is far more concerned with the goings-on at home than out in space. Whether or not our adult movies always are, the media for today’s youth is being purposefully shaped around messaging. It’s all exclaiming how we have to look after the world and each other. While Farmageddon does not reach Paddington 2 (2018) heights of radical inclusion, it feels timely and fit for the post-Brexit moment.
Having one language, or no true language at all, is one way Farmageddon unifies its messaging. It is a silent film, insofar as no English is spoken. Some words are signposted to help set a scene and it’ll be all we get. If someone talks, it is in blubbered animal-ese. It functions perfectly well, without ever leaving a moment for us to guess, why would they not fill in a gap. Because their animation is so good, it always evokes exactly the right feeling and expression. We always know what a character thinks, how a scene is meant to feel. When they have to overcome a slight effects hurdle, they side with cute vocalizations of sound effects, over the definitive article. This level of central abstraction helps realize the world as a well characterized and new space. We want to believe in their expression because it is always smart and always lovely.
The visual gags are consistently on-point. It’s immensely lovable, well-crafted stuff. As the sheep and his new alien friend try to escape the farm, they crash land a farm vehicle off a ramp. The vehicle really works itself into the ground, the way everything else does in the film, with tangible satisfaction. Shaun’s hands meanwhile have held onto the wheel so tight out of shock, when he releases, they leave fine clay indentations. Aardman loves an opportunity like this that both shows their work and reminds us how impressive their job has really been. They go the longest distance to create the simplest image. Nobody would put this much in to make this film computer-animated. It would not work whatsoever. It requires the physical medium to exist and function in a world of highly imaginative interior logic.
It’s all great fun once again. Aardman knows exactly how to make one of these. They have earned their grand title within claymation. Even with the very fierce and expert competition of Laika, who truly pour their own hearts and souls into elaborate stop-motion projects, Aardman remains king in the field. Rest easy knowing you’re not gonna get fleeced. It is because they understand their medium, their material, so intrinsically. They capture the contextual simplicity of the parts they build the movie with on the screen. We feel like we could just as well be playing with clay. Certainly, they want us to be at play. And they want us to reach out and play with our neighbor. Remember to include everybody.