Shaun the Sheep – by Jeff Mitchell
“Counting the ways ‘Shaun the Sheep’ is totally endearing”
Writers/Directors: Mark Burton, Richard Starzak
In the countryside village of Mossy Bottom, one particular sheep farm – at first glance - seems like an ordinary homestead. At second glance, however, through the magic of stop-motion animation and the comedic gifts of Aardman Animations (the folks who brought “Wallace & Gromit” to the small and big screens), the animals at this farm are pretty special.
A rooster holds a megaphone to wake up the barnyard animals each morning, a trusted dog enjoys his daily mug of coffee, a duck wheels and deals for big slices of bread, and the sheep seem to be very smart. One sheep, Shaun (Justin Fletcher), is especially enterprising, and he conveys his ideas to his sheep buddies via a piece of chalk and a blackboard. This is the setting of a very charming and highly entertaining feature film for everyone from 5 years old to 105.
According to the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com), “Shaun the Sheep” is a very popular television series with 81 episodes under its belt, but quite frankly, I did not know it existed, and this film was my first Shaun-experience.
The film’s script takes a unique approach, as none of the characters utter a single, decipherable word. The animals speak, but in incoherent “animal-speak”, and the human characters mumble as well, but through the surrounding visuals and characters’ pliable expressions, the audience always knows the conveyed message. That is just brilliant moviemaking, and the credit goes to Mark Burton and Richard Starzak who both wrote and directed the film.
In this story, Burton and Starzak show Mossy Bottom as fairly harmonious, but the daily grind of “farm work” feels monotonous to all the animals and the farmer alike. One day, Shaun becomes inspired to “have a day off”, gets very creative with his chosen writing utensil and sketches out a plan for the animals to have a day of rest and relaxation. When the farmer’s away, right?
Unfortunately, unforeseen circumstances raise their mischievous heads, and his plans go sideways.
Actually, they rolling forward down a long and winding hill. Now, it is up to Shaun to return the farm to normalcy, and his sheep friends help him on his big journey.
The story is simple enough, but the all of the big and small spaces in this world are incredibly rich with well-placed and detailed sight gags and lots of colorful characters. First of all, the film’s main protagonists are the adorable and well-intentioned sheep. With wide-opened eyes, they travel with a sweet naiveté in an unknown environment away from the farm, and their constant improvisation – with verbal squeaks and “baas” - in a (new-to-them) human-filled locale generates big laughs while the audience instantly develops an adoring rooting interest for them.
They meet some other polite animals with big personalities along the way, and every bit character brings a specific and memorable moment to the screen. The supporting human characters – which include two golf-obsessed doctors, a self-centered celebrity and a greedy small business owner - stand out too, although they are not always completely polite. The humans are not mean-spirited, but are simply “human” to hilarious and familiar effect, sans the main human antagonist. He is a severe roadblock in Shaun’s path to success, and his heartless (and sometimes frightening) attitude is especially effective at raising the stakes and building real drama and tension in the film’s final act.
On the other hand, let’s not muddy the waters, “Shaun the Sheep” is a very smart, kind-hearted and most endearing picture. With not an inch of big screen space wasted, the overabundance of hilarious visuals and plenty of warmth will generate 85 minutes of smile-inducing laughter and joy. It’s the best animated film I’ve seen all year, and this leaves me with two questions: Where can I watch Shaun’s television show, and how can I actually get to Mossy Bottom? (3.5/4 stars)