In more than one way, Aardman Animation’s Shaun the Sheep feels like a throwback to bygone days. The main characters are expanded from the BBC television show of the same name, itself spun off from side characters from the company’s Wallace and Gromit shorts. Accordingly, the trademark Claymation stop motion feels a bit rougher and earthier, the character models simpler and jerkier than what was on display in the studio’s most recent showings. Even the completely silent – or, perhaps more accurately, English-free – storytelling feels more of a kind with the patient visual architecture of a Keaton or Chaplin film than to the frenetic hyperactivity of contemporaries like Minions.
None of that is meant as a slight to Shaun the Sheep or the filmmaking team that’s brought the titular character to feature film light. The film is an old-school romp in every imaginable sense of the word, but it’s an eminently well-made one. Much like The Artist, half the fun in watching the film is seeing the way in which the filmmakers reconcile modern storytelling with the hand-tied-behind-the-back challenge of silent filmmaking. Fortunately, as with that other film, that’s only half the enjoyment, with the rest coming from its engaging characters, crisp visual presentation, and rock solid sense of comedy. It really is a film that harkens back to the kind of movies we think about when we wistfully murmur, “They just don’t make them like that anymore.”
The story follows Shaun, a surprisingly brilliant, creative, and self-aware sheep. Shaun’s flock lives in an idyllic farm, cared after by a nameless Farmer and his dutiful enforcer of a sheepdog, Bitzer. Life is good, but eventually the crushing weight of day-in, day-out routine starts to make Shaun’s clever mind grow restless. Driven by tedium, Shaun recruits his fellow sheep and some of the other farm animals on a scheme to get rid of the Farmer and his loyal hound for a day, allowing the flock to have the run of the farm for once. But when things spiral out of control and the Farmer is accidentally knocked unconscious and sent off to the nearby Big City, the animals must work together, venture into the city, and save their hapless owner. But none of them are really prepared for the perils of modern urban life, especially as an overzealous animal control expert is cracking down on the city’s stray animal population.
The film builds upwards from there, always insanely creative (or maybe creatively insane?) with the ways in which relatively simple combinations of characters and situations can spiral into madcap confrontations, inspired roleplaying scenarios, and out of control chase scenes. A big part of the comedy comes from the characters having to navigate the distinctly animal-unfriendly city by assuming a variety of human disguises and personas. In one of the film’s centerpiece scenes, Shaun and his flock must attempt to make it through a fine dining experience at an haute cuisine restaurant. Naturally, their attempts at discrete nonchalance go awry, with their efforts to imitate the behavior of the other diners being just off enough to be incredibly suspicious. In another inspired sequence, Bitzer tries to infiltrate a hospital where the Farmer has been admitted. His first disguise is hilariously bad, and he is quickly ejected from the premises. His second disguise is hilariously good, and he is quickly mistaken for a surgeon, dragged to an operating theater, and presented with a nervous patient he’s supposed to operate on.
All of this unfolds, mind you, without a single word of dialogue. Shaun the Sheep is not a silent film – there’s plenty of synched sound throughout all the film – but, like City Lights, it’s a defiantly visual cinematic experience. Shaun, Bitzer, and the other sheep only communicate through bleats and barks, while the Farmer and all the other humans only ever speak in Charlie Brown-like gibberish. The film operates first and foremost on a visual level, an approach that seeks to make the film more accessible to its nominal target audience of young children but also demands a level of active engagement from the audience. It may not be for everyone – again, it’s a far cry from the tone and speed of most contemporary films – but the experience and the jokes are all the richer for the level of deductive reasoning that the film asks of the audience.
Consider, for instance, a moment in the first scene in which we meet the film’s nominal villain, the dogmatic dogcatcher that stalks the mean streets of the Big City. While patrolling a crowded bus station, he finds a mangy stray and quickly apprehends the dog. Upon dumping the dog into the back of his van, there’s a moment where he smiles upon hearing applause from the crowd around him. A second later, the film cuts to a wider shot and we, along with the dogcatcher, realize that the crowd was actually applauding a young man who was performing a trick on his skateboard. Immediately his smile plummets. It’s both a funny bait-and-switch and a moment that humanizes the film’s villain. Both sides of that equation are magnified by the fact that you have to watch what is happening and add up the different parts of the equation in your mind. Is it a simple and straightforward story? Absolutely, but it’s also a deceptively dense and engaging meal.
With all of that said… for all of the film’s sophistication and high polish, it is hard to escape the feeling that this is a bit of a step backwards for Aardman Animation. Their goal seems to have been to make a film that felt small by design but also polished to the hilt, and in that respect Shaun the Sheep is a rousing success. But is it as bold in its pushing of comedic boundaries as The Pirates! A Band of Misfits? No. Is it as emotionally eloquent and expertly heartwarming as Arthur Christmas? No. It doesn’t even feel as adroit an adaptation of their previously existing material as Curse of the Were-Rabbit was. Perhaps it’s a bit unfair for me to bring this up as a mark against the film – it is great, and we are lucky to have another family film of this caliber out in theaters as we speed towards the end of the summer. Let’s just say that I hope that, now that Aardman has pushed the boundaries on how small they could go with a film, their next project challenges them to go bigger and bolder than they ever have before.
The Verdict: 5 out of 5
Equal parts unpretentious humility, flawless animation, and unerring comedic sensibilities, Shaun the Sheep is a triumph in Claymation storytelling. Boasting charming characters, the film is cavalcade of clever sight gags, humorous reversals, and all kinds of enjoyable chaotic mayhem, including what might just be the biggest laugh I’ve had all summer. Just be prepared to get a quieter film (in almost every regard) than what you’ll normally see, and perhaps to get saner fare than what you might expect from this studio, and you’ll have a fantastic time.