Aardman Animation’s delightful Shaun the Sheep Movie may be the first silent animated feature
since Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of
Prince Achmed in 1926.
Shaun began as a wooly orphan who escaped the evil cyber-dog
Prescott to join Wallace and Gromit in their addled household in Nick Park’s
Oscar-winning short A Close Shave (1995).
The character became the star of a popular children’s television series in
2007. Shaun is the brains of a flock of a sheep who live in the British
countryside, outwitting The Farmer, Bitzer the dog and the rowdy neighbor pigs.
Writer-directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak have
expanded the world of the TV series for the theatrical film but kept it within
comfortable limits. It’s a bigger adventure, but not too big. Many television
programs have failed the transition to the big screen because the filmmakers
tried to make pleasant, unremarkable characters into defenders of their
neighborhood—or the planet—from some overscaled threat (Hey, Arnold; School’s Out;
several of the Pokémon features).
They’ve refined the designs a bit, but children who loved the show will
recognize their friends.
Bored with the daily routine of life on the farm, Shaun
devises an elaborate scheme to trick the Farmer and Bitzer into letting the
sheep have a day off. But the scheme misfires, and soon the entire cast is lost
in the nearby Big City. Appropriately absurd confusion ensues before things sort
themselves out according to their own skewed logic.
It’s impressive that the filmmakers succeed in continuing
the non-verbal format of the series in an 85-minute film. Actors occasionally
offer a few grunts to suggest what a character is thinking and the sheep “baa”
from time to time, but it’s nothing like the endless, annoying doubletalk in Minions. The animators communicate action
and emotions entirely through mime.
The Aardman artists set new standards for acting in stop
motion animation in their films, notably the ground-breaking “Lip Synch”
series. The work in Shaun may not be as polished as the best of the Wallace and
Gromit series, but it’s very subtle and very effective. Many critics are
comparing Shaun the Sheep to the
films of the great silent comics, from Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to
Jacques Tati. The comparisons are deserved: the animators communicate so much
through the almost microscopic adjustments of the wrinkles in a character’s
forehead or shifting the angle of an eye. It reminds viewers that character animation
is the art of caricatured movement, not sitcom wisecracks.
Shaun the Sheep
qualifies as a family film in the best sense of the word: like the classic
drawn animation of Disney or Warner Bros. or the Pixar CG features, Shaun can be enjoyed by viewers of every
age on different levels. Small children will roar at the slapstick jokes; older
audience members will laugh at the spoofs of pop culture: While suffering from
amnesia, the Father uses his sheep-shearing skills to become the hottest hair
stylist in town—and a social media superstar.
A welcome respite from many recent Hollywood gabfests, Shaun the Sheep Movie offers viewers a chance
to savor animation that is original and engaging.