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Shaun The Sheep: The Movie

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)

shaun sheepOn 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!

Callum Petch is too hot, call the police and the fireman!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

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Paddington

Although it’s lightweight and its effects are awful, Paddington gets by on charm, sweetness, some decent laughs, and a strong personality.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

paddington 2Paddington never looks quite right.  There are a few angles and distances where he looks appealing enough, although never quite as cute as the film would like for him to be seen as, but from pretty much everywhere else he looks… off.  His face creeps rather than enchants, his top half seems slightly more animated than his bottom half, his eyes frequently give off this unnerving thousand-yard stare, and any movement that requires some semblance of haste is covered up with several dozen slabs of motion blur to hide the jerkiness and general low-quality nature of his CG.

Paddington, relatedly, never looks quite right.  I’m not referring to the live-action stuff; that looks great – there’s a dynamism to proceedings and a real sense of visual splendour, a desire to impress and engage the eyes with surreal sets that still recognisably exist in our world.  I’m referring to the CG.  The copious amount of CG and, good lord, does it ever look awful.  Whether it be Paddington himself, or the jungles of Peru, or a flock of seagulls that terrorise any unsuspecting prey that holds sandwiches, or any flames whatsoever, none of the film’s vast amounts of CGI ever manages to convince.  This isn’t like in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah where the CG creatures are not supposed to fully convince, these are just incredibly low-quality CG effects and they almost serve to destroy the whole film.

Their incredibly low-quality ends up catching the eye, demanding its attention and focus, and sticking in the brain for far longer than they’ve been on screen for.  They threaten to overtake the whole film, to direct attention away from the film they’re attached to and to simply be too ugly for events on screen.  Fortunately, miraculously even, they don’t end up sinking the film, despite being a large part of it.  Paddington instead manages to get by on sheer bloody charm.  It’s low-key, knows this, and therefore plays to those strengths.  This is a family film in the truest sense of the word, of the kind that they simply just don’t make anymore.

Our plot, then, follows Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw), a rare species of bear that resides in Darkest Peru and acts very human-like.  Years before, his kind had been discovered by an Explorer and Paddington’s Aunt and Uncle have nursed a desire to visit The Explorer in London ever since.  When an earthquake takes Paddington’s home and claims the life of his uncle, his Aunt sends him to live in London.  There he is taken in by the Brown family: consisting of the uptight safety-freak Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville), the charitable but out-of-touch Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins), the permanently-mortally-embarrassed daughter Judy Brown (Madeline Harris), and the daredevil and resourceful son Simon Brown (Samuel Joslin).  Paddington, however, is also now being hunted by an evil taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) who wishes to add him to the Natural History Museum.

The film goes pretty much as you’d expect from there.  Paddington has a hard time fitting into London life, the Browns slowly warm up to him and grow closer as a family as a result, the taxidermist is comically psychopathic and single-minded in her pursuit of Paddington…  It’s all very obvious, but in an earnest and likeable way.  The film is rarely mean-spirited – I mean, there’s the apparently-now-obligatory prison rape joke, but that’s about it – and has a lot of love for all of its cast.  Everything is light, everything is low-stakes, the villain’s punishment is really rather tame, the film’s one big chase scene only lasts about 5 or 6 streets, the pacing is calm and measured.

It reminds me very much of films like The Borrowers, or MouseHunt, or early Harry Potter – not coincidentally, Harry Potter producer David Heyman is a producer on this – that kind of gentile mid-90s/early-00s family film.  That same earnestness, that same joy, that same way of distorting our reality through extravagant and colourful sets that don’t always call attention to themselves.  Hiring Paul King, of The Mighty Boosh fame, to write and direct ends up being a clever choice.  He knows how to frame shots, how to make places like The Brown’s home feel recognisable and relatively attainable without losing a sense of wonder.  The Geographer’s Association headquarters, in particular, feels a hell of a lot like Gringotts in terms of scale, filming style and overall feel.

There’s a lot of charm, here.  A lot of charm and a full-on genuine personality bursting out from every corner of the frame.  Everything is silly, everything is fun, everything is clearly loving, everything is slightly different to what else is on the market right now.  There’s no real big action setpiece, a lack of pop culture references – aside from one blatant and wholly unnecessary call-out to the bit in Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol where Tom Cruise climbs the Burj Khalifa – and there’s a real care in the visual presentation of the film.  Shot compositions and camerawork are very deliberate, very staged to heighten the unreality of the events in our very real world.  There’s also a very nice recurring dollhouse visual with the family members that I want to call attention to but can’t find any way to smoothly integrate into this paragraph.

The film does occasionally tease touching on or tackling important and weighty themes – immigration, environmentalism, our broken economic system that forces those of us without access to fall-back resources to have to live on the street in a constant state of judgement with no help – but Paddington backs away from these subjects just as soon as they’re brought up; their appearance coming built into the source material and story rather than from, any conscious effort.  Instead, the film concerns itself with messages of acceptance, tolerance, and loving one’s family – y’know, obvious stuff that every other family film ever has used as their thematic backbone.  Again, though, it works because the film is so damn earnest and charming.  It knows what it wants to be and it’s proud of that fact.

That, ultimately, is why Paddington gets a pass from me: charm and personality.  Its laughs are minor but relatively constant, its heart is proudly displayed on its sleeve, and it is very good at being the nice lightweight trifle of a film that it aims to be.  If it had a few more big laughs and if its CG effects weren’t so utterly abysmal – inexcusable for a film that cost between $50 million and $55 million – then I’d be offering a full-blown praising, similar as I did to The Love Punch back in April.  As it stands though, and especially considering how much I expected it to suck prior to the film rolling in front of my eyeballs, Paddington is a charming delight that’s worth a look.

Callum Petch is ready to show himself to you.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Failed Critics Podcast: Lorraine in the Membrane

imitation gameThis week the Failed Critics join the Scottish BAFTA’s in paying homage to Lorraine Kelly, review new releases The Imitation Game and The Drop as well as having a look at the latest series of The Walking Dead and expose David Attenborough.

There was even time for Carole to review Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine; for Owen to review the documentary An Honest Liar; and for Steve to give us a run down of which bears are better than Paddington.

Join us next week for the new release, the first part of the last part of The Hunger Games films.

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