First and most importantly: the title of A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon can be parsed as a meaning-carrying phrase in English, and is thus a substantial improvement on its 2015 predecessor, Shaun the Sheep Movie, whose title is a syntactically incoherent mash-up of nouns. This is, I'm a little sad the say, one of the only respects in which Farmageddon is better than the first movie. But only a little sad. Shaun the Sheep Movie was, after all, an exquisite little gem of a family film, not the kind of thing that's readily improved upon. Farmageddon is louder, broader, maybe a touch more desperate in its high concept; but it retains the important part of the first movie and the TV series that preceded it: a commitment to sweet and silly visual gags and a scruffy approach to stop-motion animation that makes it feel very much like play time, with nothing more serious tied to it than the pleasure of cute figures and bright colors.

This is the eighth feature-length film produced by Aardman Animations (the third in a span of about four and a half years, the fastest they've ever worked; I'm not a man given to optimism, but maybe this means that the studio's current partnership with StudioCanal is the one where they've finally found a good home after three tries), and it is maybe the most Aardman-ey they've ever made. At the very least, it mashes up their two best franchises: from Shaun the Sheep we get, well, Shaun the Sheep (his non-vocal utterances provided by Justin Fletcher), the resourceful, mildly trouble-making leader of the flock at Mossy Bottom Farm, and the very light slapstick humor that he and his fellow sheep put over in some of the most fetching animated pantomime. And now that's been given a strong infusion from Wallace & Gromit in the form of a genre story that leans heavy into the DIY contraption ethos of that series. It's a good fit (Shaun was already a W&G spin-off, of sorts), though it leads to a bit of dilution: as charming as it is in its own right, Farmageddon falls below the highest standards of either of its forebears.

But those standards are very high, and there's still ample room for Farmageddon to be an awfully delightful experience on its own terms. At its heart, this is basically just a pantomime version of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, with clay stop-motion animation: a UFO has crash-landed in the rural town of Mossingham, and Shaun is the first person to meet its occupant, a pale blue and lavender rabbit, looking creature named Lu-La (Amalia Vitale). Lu-La, it turns out, is just a lost child, so Shaun, his sheep friends, and the grumpy dog Bitzer (John Sparkes) work out a way to help her contact her parents. While doing this, they must stay ahead of the agents of M.A.D., the Ministry of Alien Detection, whose team leader, Agent Red (Katie Harbour) has had a chip on her shoulder ever since she was mocked as a child for claiming she saw aliens. And in a subplot that's far more Aardman than Spielberg, the animals are also obliged to work around the human owner (Sparkes) of Mossy Bottom, who is convinced that by turning his property into a crude alien-themed amusement park called Farmageddon, he can cash in on the media frenzy surrounding the UFO and quickly make enough money to replace the combine that Shaun and Lu-La destroyed during her first trip to the farm.

It's more than a little bit impressive that the filmmakers - directors Will Becher & Richard Phelan, and writer Jon Brown - are able to put across this much plot, this clearly, without a single word of legible spoken dialogue. It's considerably higher concept than the first Shaun the Sheep Movie, which is honestly part of why its not as good. There's a comfy simplicity to the franchise that's an uncomfortable fit with the glut of science fiction in-jokes that get crammed into this scenario, as well as the sheer busyness of the plotting. At only 86 minutes long, Farmageddon doesn't have much time to waste to cover all that material, and it certainly can't be accused of lingering; every single moment is either setting up or paying off a gag, or indulging in a tepid montage sequence set to some inordinately generic pop song (the music sequences are, by a considerable margin, the worst part of the movie). It doesn't offer itself many chances to just enjoy its aesthetic, which is a deeply charming one, full of the fussy, hand-made details that make this studio's films so deeply enjoyable and cute.

I am, please understand, speaking relatively. Its action-packed title and overstuffed generic plotting notwithstanding, Farmageddon  is still pure Aardman, from the droll Britishness of so many of the visual gags, to the eagerness with which the film foregrounds the crudeness of its filmmaking. More than maybe any of the studio's other stop-motion features, Farmageddon calls back to the dollhouse-like childishness of the early breakthrough Wallace & Gromit shorts, with their obvious clay models and sets that look like toys, without the slightest illusion of reality (the first of those shorts, 1989's A Grand Day Out, even puts in a quick cameo appearance). This doesn't mean that the animation isn't beautifully fluid, or that the characters aren't wonderfully expressive - Lu-La is a great addition to the Aardman family in this regard. Just that it has a pointedly low-fi vibe, openly embracing the feeling of mucking about with dolls rather than trying to create an immersive world or wow us. While the animation is full of imaginative touches, making full use of the license that science fiction permits, it all feels very grounded in physical models, even when it required visual effects to carry off what were seeing. Stop-motion animation always looks handmade, this is one of its appeals, but Farmageddon looks handmade even by the standards of the medium.

This playful feeling, which to some extent helps account for the wildness of the story, makes Farmageddon a deeply pleasing experience all in all. It's vivid and bright, it has no shame whatsoever about its very dumb jokes, its characters are all squashy and vividly expressive, and even though it's the most predictable thing in the whole world, there's still a feeling of expansiveness, like anything could happen and all of it will be equally joyful. Just like its predecessor, it's a kids' movie through and through, except for some of the particular references (it's not likely that kids are going to pick up on an X-Files joke, is it), and just like its predecessor that unabashedly whimsical childishness is carried off with such intoxicating upbeat energy that it's pure bliss to watch it with or without a child in tow. It's maybe the most insubstantial Aardman feature to date, but so utterly happy that I can hardly see why that matters.