Before the likes of Laika came along, the most celebrated name in stop motion animation was, and still is, British studio Aardman. Best known in the 80’s and early 90’s for their Wallace and Gromit animated shorts, they soon ventured into theatrical length films in 2000 with Dreamworks’ Chicken Run. Five years after came the first feature length Wallace and Gromit film, which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
After their studio tragically burned down in a fire, the studio then went on to a brief foray into computer animation with Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas before swinging back into their roots with The Pirates! Band of Misfits. In arguably the most experimental effort they’ve delivered to date, Shaun the Sheep, adapted from Aardman’s own series of shorts based around its title character, is by far the most visually driven film they’ve produced yet, and remains just as hilarious as any of their previous movies.
Shaun and his flock of sheep grow increasingly tired of the mundane routines that their farmer puts them through. When they’ve decided they’ve had enough, they scheme to put the farmer to sleep and take the day off, but when their farmer accidentally winds up lost in the nearby city, the flock have to band together to find him in the city and bring him back, all the while outwitting a relentless animal containment officer.
In many ways, I found myself likening Shaun the Sheep to Minions in that this is what Minions should have been. Shaun himself is a spin-off character, who played a supporting role in the Wallace and Gromit short A Close Shave, and gained enough popularity to get his own micro-series. Now given a feature length format much like Wallace and Gromit, the film takes any and every advantage of the great things that can be done with the character.
One thing that sets the film apart from many contemporary competitors is its limited usage of dialogue, and by dialogue I mean animals grunting as part of communication, and humans speaking brief gibberish and mumbles. Compared to something like Inside Out, this is practically a silent film, with more effort than ever having to be put into Aardman’s signature animation style. It’s an opportunity that the filmmakers seize with unbridled imagination, as the film manages to engage the audience with its appropriately silly and gleeful ideas, and keeps building through escalation to prevent the film from losing steam early.
Admittedly, the sequences that focus more on the humans is where the film tends to come to a halt, and the sheep characters, as well as the farmer’s dog Blitzer (himself a carry-over from the micro-series) getting all of the most hilarious moments. Matching their signature quirky animation style with very surrealist humor, the film manages to hit the right balance of entertaining adults just as much as children, with its zany gags often grounded in an anything goes mindset, but also knows exactly when to subdue that way of thinking to prevent the film from burning out. Aardman’s humor is on fantastic display the entire film, from its usage of body language and sight gags, to more adult centered pop culture references like nods to The Silence of the Lambs.
Of course, the humor wouldn’t be as successful if the characters themselves weren’t good. Shaun and his flock all have such an endearing and energetic charm to them, and forgive me for more comparison, but unlike the very indistinguishable multitude of the Minions, the sheep have a surprising amount of distinction in personality to prevent them from blending into one another. On the human side, the one scene stealing character comes in the form of animal containment officer Trumper, vocal effects provided by comedian Omid Djalili. Just as animalistic in nature and animation style as the ones he hunts, Trumper has a lot of malicious hysteria in his movements and gibberish, and contributes many of the best slapstick moments in the film.
While still not reaching the same heights of Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit, I utterly enjoyed Shaun the Sheep from start to finish. It’s charming animation and reliance on body language over dialogue, which is the whole purpose of animation as far as I’m concerned, had me in stitches more than a few times, but also left me in an equally heartwarming mood, and is the studio’s most enjoyable feature in ten years.
**** / *****