Quietly daring, raucously funny, and surprisingly heartwarming, Shaun The Sheep: The Movie is yet another home-run for Aardman Animations.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
On the surface, Shaun The Sheep: The Movie doesn’t seem particularly groundbreaking. After all, it looks like yet another kid-focussed animated movie about animals, whilst the film itself doesn’t openly re-invent any wheels, doesn’t stretch itself when it comes to gags, and doesn’t go overboard with giant action setpieces and such. On the surface, Shaun The Sheep is just another animated kids’ flick, a genre which we are almost literally drowning in at the moment. However, in its own modest way, Shaun The Sheep is actually really daring and, along with the rather similar in a lot of ways Paddington, a major pushback against the misguidedly dark, bloated excess that ‘family’ filmmaking has recently devolved into.
Specifically, Shaun The Sheep is a joyous, lean, no-nonsense movie. Much like Paddington, it knows what it wants to be, executes what it wants to be with aplomb, and gets out. Not a second is wasted, there are no sudden left-turns into unnecessary darkness, and it proudly wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s the kind of light, cynicism-free, genuine family film which, much like with Paddington, they just don’t make anymore. The kind where the gag stock in trade is physical humour, where the central dynamic is all about family, where the scale is small and intimate, where stakes are personal, and where character is king above all else.
In other words, it’s the antithesis of modern day ‘family’ filmmaking and something that only Aardman could have made. There’s care and love in every frame, every shot, every scene, every character, action, sound cue, as well as a stunning level of confidence. Other filmmakers might have tried to expand the scale, introduce too many ancillary characters that we’re supposed to care about, plough every single character full of backstory and unique personality, and heighten the stakes outside of the main cast to create a finale that’s supposed to be weightier than if it were just the main cast, but Aardman have trust in their work. Trust that their film is fine as is and doesn’t need unnecessary bells and whistles.
Shaun has a laser-tight focus on its main characters – Shaun, The Farmer, Farmer’s dog Bitzer, and deranged animal controller A. Trumper who relentlessly pursues the sheep through The Big City – and any stakes in the film directly relate to those characters and their wellbeing, nothing further. There are secondary characters – most specifically the flock that follows Shaun to The Big City, and a scruffy female stray dog who Shaun bumps into – but the film never makes the mistake of handing over the film to them unnecessarily for extended durations. They’re there to compliment the main cast, not overpower them. Meanwhile, the backstories, personalities, and relationships of the main cast are simple and upfront, told through actions and an excellent pair of montages at the start of the film – they make the cast feel more rounded and genuine in five minutes than The House of Magic managed in 80.
On that note, the film’s writer-directors Richard Starzak and Mark Burton have cut out everything that they have deemed to be unnecessary to telling the story of Shaun The Sheep: The Movie and that includes the dialogue. Yes, not once in Shaun The Sheep is a line of intelligible dialogue spoken. There are animal sounds, grunts, and gibberish, but no actual dialogue. Now, obviously, this is how it is in the TV series the film is based off of, but a less confident company would have thrown dialogue in there regardless and had the cast speak intelligibly – I know that Tom & Jerry: The Movie was over 20 years ago, but wounds like that never heal – and Aardman resisted that urge. They had that confidence.
And the film is SO MUCH BETTER FOR IT. It gives the film a unique voice of its own, a creative restriction that ends up influencing everything else in the film. For example, the lack of dialogue means that gags have to be more universal, more slapstick, more built into the animation without coming off as lazy and repetitive. It’s a tough line to walk, but Shaun makes it look ridiculously easy. Gags come at a rapid-fire pace and aimed at all age levels with very few being expressly for a certain part of the audience, whilst recurring gags – like Trumper somehow falling (in two senses of the word) for one of the sheep’s elaborate disguises, or one of the Animal Containment inmates being unnervingly creepy – are sparingly returned to and build up to genuine payoffs instead of simply filling up time. Boarding and layout are also excellent, building many gags around sight and blocking in a way that feels like the design of every last frame has been agonised over.
Speaking of, animation is typically fantastic. Laika have really nailed expanding the possible technical scope and smoothness of stop-motion, as well as its integration of CGI, but there’s just something about the way that Aardman do business that will win me over each time. There’s a weight, I feel; a physical, tangible weight to their characters. Laika’s feel softer, lighter, less like human hands have been in touch with proceedings – sort of true, with their usage of CG and 3D printers – whilst Aardman’s feel heavier, denser, where their every move takes considerable effort. As always, it works. There’s nothing as complex as in The Pirates! but there is a warmth and lived-in feel, helped by the fact that, despite this effectively being a silent movie, character animations rarely go for wild and exaggerated to get across feelings.
I haven’t yet touched on Ilan Eshkeri’s score, which is a crime because it’s bloody brilliant and one of the key ways in which the film works. Since there’s no typical dialogue, the score backs and accentuates the action, making it even clearer as to exactly how characters are thinking, feeling, etc. It does a fantastic job at that whilst still conveying its own unique, slightly country, but always bouncy personality – and you all know how much I love me a score with some personality – not to mention the little leitmotifs that announce the arrival of a character; Trumper, for example, is always introduced with a crunchy, noodle-y and always self-consciously silly hard rock riff. It, like the rest of the film, is charming and unlike anything else on the market at the moment.
And that’s what makes Shaun The Sheep: The Movie so special despite it honestly not being much more than a sweet funny comedy aimed at families. Actually, scratch the “despite” part of that last sentence. That’s exactly why it is so special! It’s low-key, character-focussed, intimate, and inclusive in a way that most family movies nowadays just aren’t. Family moviemaking nowadays is very much in a rut. The animated films – and I’m singling out the bad ones, here, tropes and such aren’t bad as long as they’re done well – are mostly loud and big and spectacle lacking in heart, whilst the live-action ones have mostly migrated to 12a serialised action fests, most of which shut out the youngest by being too dark and intense for them.
But Aardman remember. Aardman remember that family entertainment should be enjoyable for all members and ages of the family. They remember the alternative to loud heartless spectacle, they remember that a light, character-driven animated film isn’t somehow lesser, and they embrace that fact. Shaun The Sheep: The Movie is nothing particularly groundbreaking, but it is unlike anything else currently in the cinema and the only people who won’t laugh, have fun, or be moved are either relentless killjoys or legally declared dead. Do not miss this one!