Aardman Studios' stop-motion film introduces basic yet layered characters and sends them on clever, oftentimes funny adventures.
Shaun the Sheep is a deceptively simple character, and Shaun the Sheep Movie is a deceptively simple film.
Shaun (voiced by Justin Fletcher) first showed up when Wallace and Gromit saved him from a close shave in the short 1995 film, “A Close Shave”. Now, he's found his way to Mossy Bottom Farm, where he and a host of other woolly companions embark on misadventures, to the dismay of Bitzer the dog and The Farmer (John Sparkes).
Shaun and company aren’t just talking animals. They’re thinking animals. Unhampered by the usual cartoon creatures' fourth-grade intellects, hackneyed pop culture references, and annoying catchphrases, Shaun and his friends act like sensible beings and don’t insult the audience’s collective intelligence. In other words, Shaun the Sheep Movie is a film that considers its characters and their experiences seriously, treating them and their viewers with respect.
This makes it quite unlike other family films. Studios tend to market such films to children using the same points of persuasion that food companies use to market candy and cereal: flashy colors, quick bits of powerful persuasion, dumb, catchy jokes, and promises of a bouncing-off-the-wall delight that melts in your mouth and gives you a toy in the box. These ads don’t tell you that the product's high sugar content and other chemical additives aren’t particularly great for the growing mind, but wheat toast and fruit yogurt doesn’t sell very well in between-commercial breaks on Nickelodeon.
In the same way, most family films nowadays sell style instead of substance, the kind of style that features well-worn plots, off-the-wall cartoon violence, strange cacophonies of tone, explosions, loud noises, celebrity voices, fart jokes, burp jokes, fart-while-you-burp jokes, burp-while-you-fart jokes, references to Teen Choice Award winners, and plenty of oddly-placed pop songs over montages. Even as Disney has avoided at least most of these pitfalls, Aardman Animations is more consistent and brings its own brand of humor.
Shaun the Sheep Movie is a fine example of what Aardman does with stop-motion animation. True, Aardman doesn't go to the emotional depths of, say, a Pixar or Studio Ghibli film: Wallace won't be discovering the true meaning of sadness and Gromit doesn't embark on soul-searching voyages of discovery. But don't be deceived by the seeming simplicity. Aardman films introduce basic yet layered characters -- a man and his dog, chickens on a farm, sheep on a farm, inhabitants of the North Pole, pirates at sea -- and send them on clever, frequently funny adventures with just the right amount of heart to earn a smile and just the right amount of British influence to feel refreshingly different from anything coming out of the States.
Such is the tale in Shaun the Sheep Movie. When Shaun grows tired of his daily routine -- being herded at the same old time of day, sheared for wool in the same old way, fed the same old feed and corralled into the same old barn -- he's inspired by a billboard on a double-decker bus to take a day off. He convinces the herd to trick The Farmer and Bitzer (also Sparkes' voice). When they lure The Farmer with sleep and the dog with a bone, the sheep find themselves free to enjoy a day of rest and relaxation at the farmhouse, watching TV, eating food from the kitchen, hanging out on the couch. It's the sweet life.
Predictably, the plan goes awry when The Farmer’s RV goes careening from its spot on the farm into “The Big City”, where The Farmer is hit on the head and ends up in a hospital, diagnosed with memory loss. It’s up to Shaun, Bitzer, and the herd to go into town and save their beloved Farmer, but not without interference from the city’s ill-willed animal catcher, Trumper (Omid Djalili), who isn’t too crazy about the idea of farm animals running around within city limits.
Even as Shaun and the other sheep save the Farmer, the film offers a deeper theme. At its beginning, a quick montage shows Shaun as a small lamb, Bitzer as a small pup, and a far-younger Farmer moving out to the country for the first time. There’s a love in those scenes that appears to have faded out over time, and by film's end, Shaun recognizes what's been lost.
At the same time, the sheep still find time for misadventures, with gut-busting set-pieces staged in the hospital where they rescue The Farmer, a fancy restaurant where a group of sheep attempt to pass for oddly dressed humans, an eerie animal kennel, and a rampaged farmhouse. As in other Aardman movies, this combination of heart and broad comedy allows for one inspired gag after the other. The film also provides a rich set of developed characters who don’t need words to prove how well they were thought out.
In one scene, Shaun and his friends are stuck in a rut: they are without direction, without The Farmer, and seemingly without a chance of restoring things to the way they were. Timmy (Fletcher's voice), the youngest sheep in the herd, begins to cry, as a young child might under such crummy circumstances. Shaun tries to calm the youngster with a whistled tune that he remembers was played when he was just a lamb on a fun day out with the Farmer.
The other sheep join in with various “bee bops” and such, and they form a barber shop quartet (or as the soundtrack listing indicates, a “Baa Baa Shop Quartet”) and perform a moving rendition of the song. Instruments begin to play in the background as the film’s score cuts in, and as this happens, the amnesiac Farmer, who at this point has been led to believe he is an expert barber himself, hears a faint melody and looks out the window, nearly reminiscent of the song. It’s a very special moment, the kind only earned by creative minds dedicated to the craft of creating worthwhile art.
The folks at Aardman have spent more than two decades doing just this kind of work, and their films and shorts are full of special moments. Deceptively simple and meticulously made, Shaun the Sheep Movie is another fine addition to the list of Aardman's titles. Families deserve more entertainment of this creative caliber.