DIR/WRI: Mark Burton, Richard Starzack • PRO: Paul Kewley, Julie Lockhart, Peter Lord, David Sproxton • DOP: Charles Copping, Dave Alex Riddett • ED: Sheila Dunn, Christopher Hink • CAST: Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes
Shaun the Sheep, the latest feature from Aardman Animations, sees the eponymous character – who first appeared in the 1996 short Wallace and Gromit: A Close Shave, before becoming the subject of his own ongoing television series in 2007 – make a bid for big-screen stardom. Deftly expanding upon a creation that has heretofore been aimed primarily at pre-school children, the film is charming and consistently inventive, though notably scaled back from Aardman’s previous big screen outing, the antic but curiously inert The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (2011).
The story of Shaun the Sheep is a simple one, with Shaun and his flock contriving to disrupt the monotony of their routine on Mossybottom Fram by shaking off the unnamed farmer for a day. However, the plan backfires, and the sheep – together with Blitzer the Sheepdog – find themselves making a trip to the Big City to rescue the farmer and return life to normal. There, they encounter a variety of japes and scrapes, including a delusional animal control officer bent on taking them into custody.
While the set-up is unavoidably similar to that of Babe: Pig in the City (1998), parents of small children will be relieved to learn that the tone is markedly different, with writer-directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzack steering well clear of the Jeunet and Caro-indebted grotesquerie that mystified audiences for that earlier film.
Geniality is the watchword here, and it seems certain that young viewers will be captivated by the film’s steady stream of gentle slapstick humour (although adults may find it occasionally overstretched at a surprisingly hefty 85 minutes). While Aardman has diversified into computer animation with results ranging from the bewilderingly ugly (Flushed Away, 2006) to the merely generic (Arthur Christmas, 2011), Shaun the Sheep is a resolutely handmade affair, and is all the better for it. For all their technical ingenuity, Aardman’s best films have always offered tactility as their most special effect, and Shaun the Sheep delivers in this regard.
Furthermore, while the action is necessarily expanded for the big screen, Shaun the Sheep takes a different path to earlier Aardman features Chicken Run (2000) and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005), which mined humour from the ironic juxtaposition of stop-frame animation and self-consciously “big” genre set-pieces. Shaun the Sheep arguably marks the first time an Aardman feature has been truly comfortable with the modesty of scale that can make stop-frame animation so affecting, especially on the big screen.
While viewers old enough to remember Aardman’s celebrated Creature Comforts (2003) may miss that production’s incisive look at the experience of animals in a human world, Shaun the Sheep remains commendable for its refusal to anthropomorphise its protagonists by giving them dialogue. By not putting words into the mouths of its animals, the film permits them dignity as non-verbal creatures, while at the same time invoking the tradition of wordless comedy from Keaton to Tati. In its own way, it shares with last year’s charming Paddington adaptation an unforced lesson on the value of difference that never gets in the way of its infectious sense of fun.
G (See IFCO for details)
Shaun the Sheep is released 6th February 2015