The most purely cinematic movie of the summer is also cute as a button and endlessly entertaining.
Shaun the Sheep Movie
The most purely cinematic movie of the summer is Shaun the Sheep Movie, a sublime, adorable stop-motion animated gift from Aardman Animations, the same folks who brought us Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run. It’s the most cinematic because it’s essentially a silent film, its story told wordlessly (aside from an infectious musical interlude) through the magic of simple sight and sound. Ingeniously conceived, meticulously crafted and effortlessly breezy, this is a movie for true cinephiles that their kids can have a blast with as well.
Aardman’s been putting on clinics in stop-motion animation for decades, and they keep getting better at their craft with each colorful confection they churn out of their beloved dream factory. But before I get into how gorgeous Shaun the Sheep Movie looks, I have to emphasize that the film’s beauty doesn’t lie solely in the hand-made figures and sets and their elegant animations, lovely though they are. The story co-writers/directors Richard Starzak and Mark Burton have put together is just as wondrous a creation as the detailed plasticine figures that play it out. There’s deep emotional depth and surprising dramatic heft to this all-ages movie, so while its surface-level visuals are amazing, Shaun the Sheep Movie is consistently amazing from crust to core.
The film is based on the popular long-running BBC series Shaun the Sheep, which follows the misadventures of Shaun and the rest of his fuzzy flock as they live life on Mossy Bottom Farm with a stern but caring farmer (simply named, “The Farmer”) and his dutiful dog, who takes pride in his job as farm-animal overseer. Shaun’s big-screen adventure sees the sheep leave the farm to rescure their beloved farmer when a scheme to break up the daily farm routine (brainstormed by the mischievous Shaun, of course) goes awry, sending The Farmer careening down the road toward the big city in his camper.
The Farmer wakes up in a hospital bed suffering from a bout of amnesia, and before long finds himself walking aimlessly through the busy streets. The sheep and the dog leave a breadcrumb trail of frightened denizens as they comb the city for their owner, and before long they’ve got a formidable foe tracking them down, an animal-control grunt with a mean streak called “A. Trumper.” The sheep clumsily try to evade their pursuer by playing piggy-back and disguising themselves in people clothes, but their cover’s blown when they start chomping on the menus at a fancy French restaurant.
It’s clever routines like this that make Shaun the Sheep so fun. Chaos and calamity presented in the most divinely staged and entertaining way is what Aardman is all about, and each scene they set in front of you is like a tiny gift box we get to unwrap and marvel at what’s inside. Shaun’s “vacation day” scheme, for example, is tons of fun: the sheep distract the dog by dangling bone on a string from a tree, synchronizing each tug with the dog’s hungry leaps; meanwhile, they jump over a fence until The Farmer is lulled into a deep sleep.
It’s this playfulness with real-world logic that makes animated features such a treasure, especially today. Younger generations are growing more and more obsessed and enamored with complaining about petty things like plot holes and scientific inaccuracies; in movies like Shaun the Sheep, we can actually delight in these lapses in logic. It’s absolutely hilarious when A. Trumper develops a crush on the sheep’s shoddy impersonation of a woman. He’s staring romantically into a pair of googly sheep eyes, and the fact that he actually buys the disguise is a wonderfully entertaining gag.
If you’ve never seen an Aardman picture before, now’s the best time to start. Their stuff is breathtaking, and there’s something moving about the tactility of the hand-formed characters and sets. It’s hard to quantify, but when you see even the slightest remnant of a fingerprint on one of the thousands of visual elements, it’s a signal that these cute little creations were made with love and hard work.
The scenario with The Farmer bonking his head is a classic one, with the inevitable resolution being, of course, a second bonk in the head to bring him back to reality. The filmmakers exchew that cliché, however, opting for an alternate resolution that actually brought a tear to my eye. Big-time emotion is what sets Aardman’s work apart, and what’s so extraordinary is that they can make you laugh, cry, gasp and cheer with the subtlest of gestures, be it a perfectly timed sigh from Shaun or a knowing smile from The Farmer to his four-legged family members. The folks at Aardman pluck on your heartstrings without you even knowing it.