Aardman Animation is back! It’s been three years since their last production, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, and they have returned with Shaun the Sheep, an adaptation of the Wallace and Gromit spin-off show of the same name. While not a huge name here, it is popular in the UK where the film has already been released and grossed almost $60 million before even reaching the States.
Shaun (Justin Fletcher) is a sheep that is getting tired of the monotony of life at the farm, so he decides to set-up a plan to have a free day for the herd to relax and have fun. However, things don’t go very smoothly, one thing leads to another and The Farmer (John Sparkes), unconscious during this whole ordeal, is set loose in the Big City. Now, Shaun takes up responsibility for bringing The Farmer back and setting things right.
Aardman has consistently delivered quality work, not just in terms of their stop-motion animation, but in telling good stories full of heart and humor. Shaun the Sheep is another home-run for the company as it shares those same qualities in spades. Despite the fairly large voice cast (including Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Omid Djalili, Kate Harbour, Simon Greenall, Emma Tate, Richard Webber, and several others), the film essentially acts as a silent film. There is no real dialogue and any human voice is basically quick little mumbles and gibberish. You could’ve theoretically done the film with just one voice actor because of how little dialogue is even needed. Though that’s nothing against the voice work in the film itself, it’s still very good.
Anyway, stylistically the tone and humor feels very evocative of things you’d see from the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jacque Tati or Harold Lloyd. It’s less plot-driven than most films now and feels like a more back-to-basics approach in just having a short, fun romp. It’s certainly doesn’t delve too much into theme except on a very basic level, but what makes the film so much fun is just how well-crafted it is as a comedy, not just animation, but comedy in general. Again, harkening back to the silent era, the film plays heavily with its visuals, using clever background gags or physical humor. There’s a certain feeling of universality that comes with the humor in this film that I haven’t seen done this well in a very long time. Character motivations are clear and swiftly set-up and conflicts are conveyed through action and visual storytelling. Nothing is overdone, it is simple and it takes the simplicity to make something interesting, memorable and fun. The groundwork is streamlined very efficiently and it allows for the humor to really drive things forward. There’s hardly a gag that doesn’t work, and almost every joke is constructed, built-up and timed to perfection.
One of the traps a film like this could fall is relying too much on the cuteness of the characters, making the overall film cross the line into something just a little too sweet and saccharin to the point of artificiality and disingenuousness (something that even the Minions movie is guilty of to a degree, and I enjoyed that movie). Yes, Shaun the Sheep is an incredibly adorable movie, but there is still an edge to it. You get the feeling that the movie is off-kilter in subtle ways and it does not feel ashamed into going into some weird places; for one example, there’s a Silence of the Lambs reference. Little details and little jokes like that add a lot of character and personality to the film.
There’s really not a lot to say about Shaun the Sheep, aside from the fact that it is a good family film and a genuinely great comedy. The one thing putting this movie in third place in terms of family films this year (Inside Out and Paddington being the other two) is its lack of thematic ambition, but the one thing this film has over both those films are the consistency in big laughs. It’s an immensely charming film that, like any other Aardman production, is able to be so cinematic, yet retain its intimate and homespun core. At 85 minutes, it’s a fast watch, with a solid joke to be found at every corner. It’s clearly made with love and passion, not just for the characters and the craft of stop-motion, but for the love of silent cinema and good ol’ fashioned slapstick.