Shaun the Sheep Movie is a welcome reminder of the transformative power of good physical comedy. Following in the grand tradition of silent film masters like Keaton and Chaplin, filmmakers Mark Burton and Richard Starzak carefully construct each visual gag for maximum hilarity. It hardly matters that Shaun and his band of merry varmints are stop-motion creations; they are fully-realized characters with their own hopes, fears, and idiosyncrasies. Kids will be transfixed and adults will spend some quality time with goofy grins on their faces. This is appointment viewing for lovers of cartoon comedy.
Despite enjoying ‘most-favored sheep’ status, Shaun is in a rut. Every day on the farm is the same; the Farmer and his trusty dog, Bitzer, tend a flock of sheep, endure the taunts from a trio of sassy pigs, and try to avoid being trampled by a rambunctious bull. Shaun decides he needs a day off, complete with junk food and DVD’s. He draws up an elaborate plan and enlists his sheep brethren for a coup d’etat on the Farmer’s house.
In true slapstick fashion, Shaun’s plans go horribly awry. The Farmer is whisked into the city via a runaway travel trailer, Bitzer is forced to masquerade as a surgeon (!), and Shaun has a scary run-in with Trumper; the best animal wrangler in the city. Now Shaun and his buddies must work together to survive long enough to retrieve the Farmer, who now has a serious case of amnesia. It’s a great comic set-up that pays off repeatedly, both with inspired visual gags and some sharp social commentary.
The last two weeks, Hollywood has dropped two comedic stink bombs in the form of Pixels and Vacation. It took France’s StudioCanal and Britain’s Aardman Animation to finally give us something to laugh about. These masters of stop-motion animation, the same team responsible for the delightful Wallace & Gromit series of films and television programs (which spawned Shaun the Sheep in 2007), take great care with every detail of their production. It would be easy to throw some frenetic action on the screen and call it slapstick, but writer-directors Burton and Starzak imbue each character, no matter how minor, with a relatable personality and a reason for existing.
Even throwaway gags in Shaun the Sheep Movie are inspired. A mischievous duck demands bread as a payoff for distracting Bitzer, and then bristles when Shaun shorts him one slice. Dog catchers use Terminator-style gadgets to track their prey, and “inmates” at the animal shelter each have their own shtick (the cat who hisses like Hannibal Lecter is a particular favorite). Each nuance draws you into the story just a little bit tighter and builds to a surprisingly-emotional conclusion.
In fact, Shaun wears its sentimental heart on its Plasticine sleeve. Rather than scraping the bottom of the already-barren nostalgia barrel (see: Pixels and Vacation), these filmmakers are more interested in appreciating what they have. You feel the heartbreak of a dog rejected at the animal shelter, or the elation of a critter who knows exactly where they belong. There are moments of genuine peril, as well, reminiscent of the incinerator scene from Toy Story 3. Some younger children might find the going a bit intense, but there are vast rewards for staying the course.
Visually, this looks as good as anything Aardman’s has produced. From lush country sides to ominous city streets, everything looks dynamic and crisp. But not too crisp. Part of the charm of stop-motion is that it doesn’t have the artificial fluidity of traditional animation. With that in mind, the filmmakers leave just enough funkiness to augment the physicality of their creations. There is real effort and weight to each movement, which only adds to the effectiveness of the physical gags. You need a little slap with your slapstick, after all.
For all the outrageous antics and wacky montages, the storytelling remains refreshingly intelligent. Shaun has to think his way through these problems, always coming up with a new architectural blueprint for mischief. There are plenty of familiar winks for observant adults, such as characters clacking together coconut shells to mimic horse hooves, or some biting social commentary on the nature of celebrity and commercial branding. Mainly, the visual gags themselves, most of Rube Goldbergian proportions, display a level of ingenuity that reward a viewer’s undivided attention.
Of course, there is no proper dialogue in Shaun the Sheep, as that has become a staple of these productions, but the filmmakers use music and their own brand of ‘gibberish’ to convey the more direct information. Everything else is communicated strictly through action. There is poetry to this type of physical comedy, and the filmmakers take their cues from some of the silent film masters. Whether it’s sheep dressing in drag or a dog giving gratuitous face-palm, these animated characters remind us of “real” characters that we’ve seen before, while still adding an original spin to the classic bits.
If there was ever a family film designed for a lazy Saturday afternoon, it’s Shaun the Sheep Movie. It makes you laugh, even as it affirms the value of things we often take for granted. There’s certainly nothing wrong with dreaming, but you need a solid reference point. It’s this sincerity that makes Shaun such a delight. So let your guard down and enjoy a heartfelt break from irony and sarcasm. Shaun the Sheep Movie is good for your soul.