'Shaun the Sheep Movie'
For all the talk about Pixar’s remarkable track record, not nearly enough love is spread over to Aardman Animations, the British claymation studio behind ‘Wallace and Gromit’, ‘Chicken Run’ and now ‘Shaun the Sheep’. Given the labor-intensive nature of the work, the company often has a 3-5 year gap between movies. Yet when one comes, it’s nearly impossible not to be absolutely delighted by the result. Seriously, you have to try hard not to be charmed by these things.
The plucky li’l Shaun the Sheep has become a bit of a mascot for the Aardman folks. He first appeared in one of the Oscar-winning ‘Wallace and Gromit’ shorts (‘A Close Shave’) and then got a popular TV series that has now been spun off into a movie. It’s not a bad career for a character incapable of speech beyond the occasional, emotional “Baaa.”
Generally, Shaun goes on goofy little adventures with his farmland buddies in the deliberately small scale TV show, but this is a movie, so it’s time for a grand Shaun adventure. Weary of his days grazing at the farm (it’s hard out there for a sheep, yo), Shaun spots a sign on the side of a bus suggesting to “Take a day off,” and decides to do exactly that. Along with his flock of buddies, Shaun and the sheep concoct a plot to trick their farmer into sleeping all day. Unfortunately, things go ridiculously wrong.
Through one of the many exquisitely executed silent slapstick set-pieces that make up the plot, the farmer ends up on a one-way trip to the city, where a head-bumping accident leaves him with amnesia and somehow convinced that he’s a trendy hairdresser. That means it’s up to Shaun, his fellow sheep, and the farm’s dog to find the farmer, restore his memory, and bring him back. Meanwhile, a pesky city animal control worker tries to shove them all into the pound, so tensions run high and there will be some pretty ridiculous disguises.
On a certain level, ‘Shaun the Sheep’ is a very simple movie. The story is straightforward and it has no pesky subtext. On another level, the movie is a remarkable feat from the Aardman animators. Not only have they managed to successfully pull a TV character into the movies and deal with the massive technical challenges of animating a feature film one frame at a time, but they’ve told their story entirely silently. Characters might open their mouths frequently, but nothing more than mumbles and sound effects ever come out. That means the story has to be told entirely visually. Somehow, even with dialogue tied behind their backs (and the Aardman folks are generally quite good at witty banter), they’ve delivered a movie as funny, warm, exciting, touching and flat-out entertaining as any children’s film released this summer. The Aardman team’s ambitions may never aim much more than charming entertainment, but did they ever deliver.
The gags come fast and furiously, ranging from potty humor and slapstick to genuine surrealism and strange asides. Every character is remarkably well-crafted from the beautifully simple designs to the distinct and personality-revealing movements. It’s a masterfully calculated bit of fluff (or perhaps wool… sorry, couldn’t resist) that harkens back in style to the oldest silent animated shorts from Disney or Warner Brothers, while also feeling freshly contemporary and distinctly, sardonically British.
Is this the best Aardman movie? Probably not. The ‘Wallace and Gromit’ films are pretty remarkable and ‘Chicken Run’ was one of the most underrated animated efforts of the 2000s. However, the ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ can stand proudly amongst the rest of Aardman’s output. No one does it quite like the lovable Aardman chaps. The hardest part of watching one of their movies is knowing that when it’s over, there will be at least a three-year wait until the next one… Sigh…