Film Review – Shaun the Sheep
Shaun the Sheep
The thing about Aardman Animation is that they realize exactly what they’re doing. The studio behind stop-motion gems like Chicken Run (2000) and the Wallace & Gromit films knows how to hit the right balance between warmth and silliness. Behind the gags and visual puns lies a finesse that’s much more nuanced and witty than is first perceived. While it may not be the household name that other animation studios have reached, Aardman has quietly become one of the most consistent in terms of quality.
That streak continues in Shaun the Sheep (2015). Written and directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak (based off the television series), this latest feature shows exactly how Aardman can take an idea and expand it to its full potential. While it may appear thinly drawn plot wise, there’s a level of depth and real emotion about how the characters relate to one another. That’s what makes us connect to them even when the main protagonists are farm animals.
Another strength is in the lack of dialogue. Burton and Starzak structure the narrative without speech. It makes for an interesting obstacle to overcome: the inability for characters to spout expositional dialogue and to depend entirely on visual information. When characters do talk, they do so in jibberish, and yet we can clearly follow along without confusion. Film is a “show me” medium, and here there are a ton of ways details are pointed out without the need to talk. For instance: in one scene, a map is laid out showing how characters must get from one place to another. Between the two places is an arrow showing the direction they need to go. Instead of engaging in a debate about how the journey will be accomplished, a circle is made around the arrow with a simple question mark next to it. Like Charlie Chaplin or Jacques Tati, it’s little visual cues like this that make the whole piece so much richer.
An opening montage sets up the relationship between The Farmer (John Sparkes), his dog Bitzer (also Sparkes), and his herd of sheep including Shaun (Justin Fletcher). Early on, the dynamic between them is loving and friendly. After a few years however, the monotony of doing the same routine everyday has left everyone in a malaise. One day, rather than doing the same boring thing again, Shaun and the sheep decide to play hooky for a few hours. This features a funny joke of putting The Farmer to sleep by literally making him count sheep (hyuck!). However, through an unfortunate series of events, the sheep’s temporary vacation leads to The Farmer getting lost in the big city with amnesia. Only Shaun, the rest of the sheep, and Bitzer have the wherewithal to bring The Farmer back home and restore his memory. But can they do it? Oh, the suspense!
This is a very cute movie, and at breezy eighty-five minutes, it feels like a short film stretched out to feature length. The main point of tension deals with the animals searching for and trying to rescue The Farmer, all the while trying to avoid capture by Trumper (Omid Djalili) an animal containment worker. That’s really about it in terms of story, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes filmmakers try too hard to make some important statement that they bog down their own material. That’s not the case here. Burton and Starzak aren’t going for any lofty theme other than friendship and family, and they accomplish touching on that with sincerity. Because the plot is streamlined, it allows for a number of laughs to help us travel along the way. One of the funnier visual puns has The Farmer unwittingly becoming a hairdresser. Because of the muscle memory from shearing sheep, The Farmer accidentally cuts a celebrity’s hair the same way to great acclaim, becoming an overnight sensation in the fashion industry.
I could talk about the character and production design, but Aardman has been so good at doing that for so long that I risk sounding like a broken record. Although it doesn’t reach the same classic heights as Wallace & Gromit, I’m still impressed by how smoothly the animation works. The uniqueness of each human character and the way animals are given human-like expressions flows so well in conjunction with one another. The animation makes it so that we can fully believe that The Farmer would treat his animals more like friends than property. It’s all so bright and colorful and creatively imaginative. In a time where computer animation has all but taken over, it’s nice to see a place where good old stop-motion can exist and flourish.
Shaun the Sheep may be a light farce, but it’s an entertaining one nonetheless. It has plenty of slapstick for kids to cling onto, and a deeper emotion and intelligence that adults can appreciate. This is the cinematic equivalent of little puppies or kittens: it’s just impossible to hate.