A film review by Craig J. Koban August 22, 2015

RANK: 13


2015, PG, 85 mins.


Justin Fletcher as Shaun (voice)  /  John B. Sparkes as Bitzer and Farmer (voice)  /  Omid Djalili as Trumper (voice)  /  Richard Webber as Shirley (voice)  /  Kate Harbour as Timmy's Mum and Meryl (voice)  /  Tim Hands as Slip (voice)  /  Simon Greenall as Twins (voice)

Written and directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzack

When it comes to animation…I’ll take stop motion any day of the week and twice on Sunday.  

The meticulously hand crafted nature of these films have something that even the ultra-high tech look and sheen of Pixar films lack: A truly immersive tactile quality.  Not to take away anything from the finest of computer animated films that have graced the silver screen for decades, but stop motion's rich multi-dimensional aura is something that even the finest computers can’t duplicate.  Obviously, this has a considerable amount to do with the fact that actual clay puppets and physical objects are actually manipulated in front of the camera, but I’m nevertheless left with a tremendous admiration for these artists rendering their Plasticine creations.  There’s just a refreshingly old fashioned aura to this work that’s so endlessly quirky and inviting. 

For these reasons – and many more – I smiled the widest of smiles all the way through SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE, yet another rousingly triumphant and aesthetically masterful stop motion animated film from Aardman, the same animation studio that produced the brilliant WALLACE AND GROMIT shorts and feature film from 10 years ago.  The film takes its inspiration from a TV series of the same name that aired 130 episodes, all involving the titular character (a sheep) and his madcap and wacky adventures on a small farm.  The most wonderful accolade I could bestow upon SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE is that it lovingly preserves the sensation and feel of human artists crafting every solitary minute of the film, something that can certainly be felt in many animated films, to be sure.  Yet, here it’s just…different.  In SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE directors Richard Starzack and Mark Burton not only intuitively understand how to mix the quintessential subversive humor alongside some spirited tomfoolery that typifies Aardman’s past work, but they also create a wondrous feast for the eyes that revels in pure visual dynamism and innovation.  The more I became transfixed in the universe of this film the less conscious I become of its impeccable artifice.  The world of the movie became my world for 85 minutes. 



SHAUN THE SHEEP is about, yes, a sheep named Shaun.  He lives at the Mossy Bottom Farm in rural England, a farm that’s populated by many an animal that exhibits some truly peculiar behavior…mostly that they frequently behave – and even walk – like human beings.  Of course, most of these eccentric animal quirks are never noticed by the farmer – known only as "Farmer" in the film – who takes great pride in tending after every need of his beloved flock.  Farmer is assisted by Bitzer, a sheepdog that spends most of his days keeping law and order on the farm, which is sometimes tricky, seeing as the sometimes boisterous and inquisitive nature of the sheep is complicated by also dealing with the farm's partying and unruly Naughty Pigs and one opportunistic and shameless duck that will stop at nothing to make a quick buck.  Farmer and Bitzer definitely have their hands full on a daily basis. 

Shaun seems fairly happy with life on the farm…but something just feels off about his daily grind there.  He yearns for a life beyond the pastoral setting he seems unavoidably stuck in, so he and some of his pals decide to break free of the farm – utilizing a staggeringly complex escape plan, at least as far as sheep are concerned – and leave without the Farmer or Bitzer being none the wiser.  Shaun and his brethren do indeed bust out of the farm and end up in the “Big City", but remaining incognito in a strange urban world populated by humans proves to be daunting.  Hilariously donning disguises that seem to miraculously allow them to pass for humans, Shaun and his mates embark on a series of adventures in the city, all while Farmer attempts to pursue and reclaim them.  Oh, he accidentally develops amnesia in his pursuit, making his mission all the more difficult.  Making matters especially difficult for everyone is an obsessively diehard animal containment officer that will do anything to capture Shaun and his woolly friends. 

SHAUN THE SHEEP is so wickedly absurd that it almost defies description.  Complimenting the endearing daftness of the whole enterprise is that Starzack and Burton have ostensibly crafted a silent film.  No human or animal characters speak English or any discernable human language at all.  They essentially enunciate in a combination of mumbles, growls, and outright gibberish, which provides the film with a whole added layer of comic pathos.  Now, maintaining a sense of narrative momentum and pacing is decidedly difficult considering that no one verbally communicates to one another in the film with understandable or relatable words, but the makers here still manage to evoke superbly rendered personalities for all of their respective characters.  They also do this through some exemplarily executed physical comedy that neither feels forced nor too laid back.  A large part of the enterprising creativity in SHAUN THE SHEEP is how rich the character dynamics are here despite the utter lack of dialogue. 

The film’s overall humor is also quite sophisticated as far as family animated films go, with plenty of individual scenes that reference films that only adults will cheerfully understand and acknowledge (there’s amusing visual odes to films as far ranging as THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS - pun intended? - to CAPE FEAR).  Beyond the cinematic referencing, SHAUN THE SHEEP creates multiple moments of sidesplitting merriment.  I howled during one sequence as the sheep – somewhat pathetically disguised as humans – attempt to dine at a posh restaurant, but they fail to blend in when they begin munching on the menus instead of the food.  There’s also a hysterical moment when Bitzer inadvertently finds himself in surgical garb at a local hospital (don’t ask why or how) and nearly has to perform surgery on a patient…that is until he’s distracted by the delicious looking bones on a skeleton in the operating room.  Equally droll are a series of scenes inside an animal rescue shelter, which comes off as a depraved prison filled with lunatic animals that deeply disturb Shaun and company while incarcerated there.  One of the film’s best recurring sight gags involves one locked up dog in a cell adjacent to Shaun that gives perhaps one of the most disturbingly unflinching and funny staredowns I’ve seen in a movie.  He’s clearly been in there too long. 

Of course, SHAUN THE SHEEP lives and breathes on a level of its visual invention.  The film’s technical artifice is staggering to behold.  Starzack and Burton are not simply content with crafting adorably relatable creatures made out of clay here.  They also fully realize a vast and sprawling metropolis that surrounds the film’s animal heroes that has an extraordinary level of minute detail.  There’s something occurring in every corner of every frame in SHAUN THE SHEEP, leaving me in a state of perpetual awe and wonder as to the countless hours and sleepless nights that the film’s crackerjack artisans went through to see this film through to final fruition.  I’ve read that WALLACE AND GROMIT: CURSE OF THE WERE RABBIT took over five years to make; when I watched that film I believed it.  SHAUN THE SHEEP sort of astonishingly and improbably ups the ante of that film in terms of scale and scope.  The film was not unconverted and presented in distracting 3D…a wise choice, to be sure.  And why would it need to be?  It’s essentially an animated film manufactured with three dimensional puppets and props.  

The sheer unlimited audacity of stop motion animation is in pondering the Herculean effort employed by the artists to achieve their end results.  This can be felt all throughout SHAUN THE SHEEP, which joyously and enthusiastically mixes slapstick silliness, a gentle sentimentality, snappy pacing, and scrupulous artistic flair through and through.  The film does careen towards an inevitable – if somewhat overlong and overdone – climax pitting Farmer and his flock against the seemingly unstoppable animal control agent that never seems to know when to quit, but by this point in the film I couldn’t care less.  SHAUN THE SHEEP is so warm hearted, so playful, so wickedly funny, and so intrepid on a level of its technical artifice that nitpicky criticisms go away really fast.  I’ve seen comedies featuring all human casts with less inspired laughs and unbridled creativity than what’s on display here.  That’s what makes SHAUN THE SHEEP one of the more entertaining and enchanting animated films to emerge in a long time. 

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