Movie a Day Blog is a huge fan of Aardman Animation in England, creator of numerous WALLACE AND GROMIT shorts and features, along with the title character of SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE (2015, Theatrical).
Diehards may claim that no one can replace the zonked-out Wallace and his brilliant dog Gromit, but Shaun makes a strong case for inclusion among the Aardman small stop-motion animation masterpieces that have made Nik Park and Peter Lord’s Bristol studio the most successful foreign animation enterprise.
Shaun doesn’t have much visual complexity: he’s basically a round black face, ears and hooves surrounded by springy white cotton, and he doesn’t say a word, not even a “baaaa.” (There is a great joke later in the movie that finally does pay off the traditional sheep comic sound, but NO SPOILERS!)
That’s one aspect of the genius of SHAUN: there is no dialogue, neither animal nor human. The animals almost pass as human (pigs are a disturbing reminder of our worst tendencies), but everyone just mutters and mumbles and gesticulates and we find that we don’t miss words at all. (Several actors are credited for vocal performances).
The primary reason this approach succeeds is that the movie is so fiendishly and consistently visually clever.
Every potential cliche is dodged at the last moment, or emphasized as set-up for what will prove to be a delightful payoff. It’s difficult to be specific without giving away the surprises SHAUN evokes at every hairpin turn, but NO SPOILERS!
SHAUN has been compared to BABE: PIG IN THE CITY (1998), and there are plot similarities in that Shaun and his accompanying flock have to go to the Big City (literally named) to find their Farmer who has suffered amnesia and becomes a hipster hairstylist, … well, you get the idea. NO SPOILERS!
Sheep are a lot funnier than I imagined in the hands of co-writer-directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak, who worked on several of the SHAUN shorts, which are said to be inordinately popular with the pre-verbal set because they don’t talk, either.
Contemporary animation has been very successful in making life more tolerable for parents who bear small children to movie theaters. The films are often filled with as many adult joke references as the allotment for the toddlers.
In Dreamworks Animation films, this can get frenetic and obnoxious, but Aardman employs a more subtle and knowing approach and I found myself laughing consistently out loud along with three eight year old boys sitting behind me. The quick and clever humor worked for all of us.
There is also a terrific soundtrack, that ranges from the Foo Fighters to rap music, and for some inexplicable reason, it all feels natural. So does the most diverse background population I have ever seen in an animated feature not directed by Ralph Bakshi. These sheep live in a multicultural world.
Shaun is aided by Trumper, the Farmer’s loyal dog, and there is a subtle lesson offered in SHAUN about traditional enemies (his job is keeping the sheep in line, no easy task) working together to achieve a common goal, getting the Farmer restored to his natural self.
It’s not nearly as heavy-handed as the gloopy be-positive-aren’t-you-wonderful messages promulgated by most animated movies, as if the kiddies can’t escape without being lectured about what’s good for them.
What’s good for Shaun and company is to get back to the Farm, which also mirrors what’s happening in contemporary society.
Aardman may be an ocean away from Hollywood and seemingly content to go their own way in the animation business, but they demonstrate a more astute assessment of the marketplace than many of their big-studio competitors.