God bless Aardman. When the Bristolian studio announced its foremost ovine creation would be gambolling onto the big screen earlier this decade, it initially sounded like arse-covering, a means of keeping the brand visible and the animators busy while Nick Park was coming up with a new Wallace & Gromit pitch. In fact, 2015's Shaun the Sheep Movie proved a small, quiet triumph: a rediscovery of silent-film methods (no dialogue, just a score and some especially choice sound effects) which was at least as well sustained as the Oscar-winning The Artist. The advantage enjoyed by the sequel, A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, is that the rules and details of Shaun's world are now very firmly nailed down, or as firmly nailed down as anything cast in modelling clay can ever be. Front and centre: Shaun and his carefully differentiated sheep brethren, characterised - as ever - like the adventurous-mischievous children that may at some point have been this franchise's target demographic. Watching over them: the officious sheepdog Bitzer, effectively a canine variant on Blakey from On the Buses, routinely exasperated by charges who run rings around him. Him indoors: the farmer, whose thick specs and a-ho-ho-ho chuckle suggest the influence of either Eric Morecambe or Frank Carson. Long before the farmer converts Mossy Bottom Farm into the venue for the eponymous Farmageddon - a plot development that owes a certain debt to seasonal newspaper reports of ill-tended "Winter Wonderland"-style cash-ins - the Shauniverse feels like a theme park in which various British comedy traditions can run amok; yet the absence of the spoken word again makes this universe universal. In the woolly, wide-eyed Shaun, Aardman may have hit upon the 21st century's equivalent of Mr. Bean. This lamb will export, and then some.
The follow-up allows writers Jon Brown and Mark Burton and directors Will Becher and Richard Phelan to push beyond the familiar and cosy. The first film spanned a day or so in the life of Mossy Bottom Farm, providing a gentle introduction to Shaun's world for anyone who hadn't had the pleasure of the TV show. The second introduces the idea of otherness - and some sense of the world/cosmos beyond the farmer's acreage - via Shaun's growing friendship with an alien whose craft crashes in a nearby forest, causing (a very Aardman touch, this) a local man to drop perhaps the most delicious-looking bag of chips ever set before a camera. That relationship isn't especially original: it's Aardman putting their own spin on a hands-across-the-galaxy narrative that has been a staple of our U-rated fictions ever since Elliot tempted E.T. out into the light with a handful of Reece's Pieces. Yet there are pressing reasons for a British studio to retell that story now, much as there would appear to be very good reasons for Aardman to give the Creative Europe funding scheme ("a program of the European Union") its most prominent opening credit in years. After a turbulent series of partnerships with various American studios, Aardman look to have found a renewed stability with the French distributor StudioCanal; Park's 2018 venture Early Man and the two Shaun films to have emerged under this banner demonstrate that it is possible to be proudly, idiosyncratically British (English, even) while being part of a bigger picture. Something I didn't expect going into a Shaun the Sheep sequel: that I would wind up wondering what the supply chain is like for plasticine.
While you're watching Farmageddon, which way that plasticine leans politically is of far less significance than what the animators have done with it; frame-by-frame, there are abundant jokes and felicities of design to process. (In other words: you and any young charges would be most welcome to approach the new film as an especially inventive form of escapism, rather than a statement of sorts.) The alien, for one, is really no more than an elongated blob of Blu-Tack - there's something of Aardman's enduring Morph in its DNA, right down to the thumb whorls that serve as skin tone in the close-ups - yet it's right up there with Toy Story 4's Forky as the year's most delightful animated creation: expressive, sympathy-inducing, happy-making. That the sheep's mouths emerge at right angles from their heads shouldn't work (it should look all kinds of wrong, a perversion of standard animation practice and the laws of nature alike), yet it remains perfectly distinctive, especially whenever these characters are caught mumbling; and we race towards the conclusion with a terrifically clever series of sight and sound gags involving letters tumbling from the farmer's Farmageddon sign. Becher and Phelan keep their narrative simple, the better to build on top of it; this is one of those all too rare family features where you sense very early on that everything on screen has been worked over and thought through, and where there's no obvious discrepancy between the care lavished on the first and third acts. Not many films this year have made me smile with their opening images and kept that smile there, with varying levels of beam, for a full ninety minutes - but Farmageddon did precisely that: sit tight through the end credits for a dreamy celeb cameo.
A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon is now playing in cinemas nationwide.