After so many extraordinary films in the past few years from Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, Laika, and various other animation houses, it’s been surprisingly easy to forget Aardman Animation. The beloved house that brought us Wallace and Gromit, not to mention Chicken Run, has been absent from multiplexes for quite some time now. Aside from the eminently forgettable The Pirates! Band of Misfits, anyway.
You’d think it would be a bigger deal to see Aardman coming back to cinema, especially since they’re giving a full movie to one of their most beloved W&G side characters. Yet the film came out with virtually zero advance hype, seemingly lost amid all the summer hoopla. What’s more, even though the movie has been given near-unanimous critical praise, everyone’s attention seems to be more focused on the disastrous Fantastic Four reboot.
Basically, Shaun the Sheep Movie comes off at first blush as a very pleasant surprise. It seems like something we didn’t know we needed and something we didn’t know was coming, but we’re all so much better off now that it’s here.
But is it really that good? Let’s take a look.
The movie opens on a farm where Shaun resides with his farmer, the loyal sheepdog, his fellow sheep, and other assorted animals. They go through the same routine day in and day out, except for those dreaded times when the sheep need shearing. Then Shaun gets it into his head that everyone could use a day off.
First, Shaun conspires with the other sheep to trick the farmer into falling asleep for a very long time. This is surprisingly easy for them (Think about it for a moment. You’ll get it.). So the farmer is tucked away in a trailer somewhere while the sheep get the run of the farm. But then — through a long set of improbable shenanigans that I don’t dare try to recap here — the farmer ends up in the nearby unnamed Big City, with memory loss to boot.
The sheepdog goes out to look for the farmer. He’s followed by Shaun, who in turn is followed by the rest of the scatterbrained flock. And they all have to try and find the farmer while hiding from an egomaniacal bastard in animal control. Hilarity ensues.
The central gimmick for this film is that there is absolutely zero spoken dialogue. Not a word. The characters speak entirely in gestures, expressions, grunts, actions, and of course, animal noises. There’s a surprising amount of ingenuity in getting the conceit to work: At one point, the sheep break into a full-on musical number with ad hoc instruments, beat boxing, and the word “baa” sung in various pitches.
Music is of course a crucial component of the film, used to help communicate the mood of a scene and the thoughts of the characters. It’s generally a lot of fun — the central “Feels Like Summer” tune is an early Oscar contender — though there are a few times when the music cheats a little on the “no dialogue” rule.
Naturally, the gimmick affects the comedy on display. Pretty much all of the jokes are either sight gags or slapstick in nature, though the filmmakers sneak in one or two very subtle pop culture references. There’s a fair bit of gross-out humor, but most of it stems from the premise of animals disguised as humans or ignorant small farm denizens transplanted into a big city. The important thing is that so much effort and creativity is put into making every joke land, and the whole film is far better for it.
As for the downsides, it should go without saying that a film can only express so much without dialogue. As a direct result, the characters are thinly developed and the story is very simplistic. But then again, it’s a movie that was very clearly made with young kids in mind. So it’s hardly a bad thing. In fact, if the story is simple enough that kids can keep track of it, and the humor is smart enough to keep the adults entertained, what more could anyone ask of a family movie?
As for the animation, it should go without saying that the filmmakers had to work extremely hard to make every movement count. Every facial expression and movement had to convey something to the audience. The characters all had to look distinct, and their appearance had to say volumes. Once again, the filmmakers put so much effort into getting this aspect up to snuff, and it paid off. Also, stop-motion has an inherently tactile quality that makes all the physical comedy so much more effective.
Shaun the Sheep Movie isn’t the next cornerstone masterpiece in the animated genre. Hell, it isn’t even the best animated film or kids’ film released this year. Then again, Inside Out is so far out of this film’s league that the comparison would be unfair.
This is a very simple film without much of anything in the way of narrative or thematic depth. Yet the film has so much charm, intelligence, humor, creativity, and shear effort that it’s undeniably a good time to watch.
It’s a fun and light movie with enjoyment for all ages. Definitely recommended.