Jared McMillan // Film Critic
Let’s be honest… I’m an adult-sized child. A man-child, as some would call it. I could go into the many qualifiers I have for this label, but I’m going to cut to the chase and say I love
cartoons animation, whether it’s something hand-drawn or computer-generated. I have no preference, I will watch anything animated. It brings back a sense of wonderment and imagination that goes into hiding due to the growing up that Peter Pan warned me about all throughout my childhood. My all-time favorite is TOM AND JERRY— not because of the violence, but because they can tell a story with hardly any dialogue. The plots were always basic, but the “stunts” they performed conveyed language without resorting to having a cat or a mouse speak. It is amazing that I can get such entertainment out of visual communication. I feel like I am a part of something, and that understanding them gets me more into their world. That kind of immersion makes the imagination thrive and makes the visual more fun to the viewer.The kind of fun I had watching TOM AND JERRY is exactly the kind of fun I experienced when I saw SHAUN THE SHEEP.
Aardman, the creators of CHICKEN RUN and WALLACE & GROMIT, have returned with their newest full-length film, based on their TV series about a sheep who thinks outside the flock (I’m trying to keep the sheep puns to a minimum, I swear). The film opens on a credits sequence of Shaun (Justin Fletcher) as a lamb, who is close with his owner, The Farmer (John Sparkes), and his dog Bitzer (shown as a pup, also voiced by Sparkes). After the credits, we see that being older has led to getting into a routine, and The Farmer barely registers Shaun and Bitzer as the companions they once were. Determined to shake things up a bit, Shaun decides to trick The Farmer into giving them the day off from life on Mossy Bottom Farm. As their owner sleeps in a trailer, Shaun and his flock make the best of it. However, things don’t go as planned as The Farmer’s trailer rolls all the way to The Big City, with Bitzer chasing after it, and the catalyst for the plot sets the story in motion: Shaun must go to The Big City and find them so they can survive. From here the plot is divided into three concurring stories: Shaun and his flock look for The Farmer, Bitzer looks for The Farmer, and The Farmer gets amnesia when his trailer crashes, so he’s looking for himself.
SHAUN THE SHEEP has a fairly straightforward and simple plot, but none of the characters speak aside from general grumbles from the human characters. Because of this thin structure, there needs to be a different sort of complexity to it in order to keep its audience. It’s highly imaginative to say the least. First of all, the trademark stop-motion animation of Aardman is as brilliant as usual. In fact, it is so smooth in its transitions that I thought it had to have been computer-generated. Directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak have the camera move through any establishing shots in order to give realization to the world they’ve built. Furthermore, most of their shots incorporate the use of shallow focus, putting its characters central to the story front and center, and giving a depth of 3D without actually using the gimmick of 3D. Secondly, in order to forgo any sort of lull that could happen with lack of dialogue, there were sight gags and the presence of a lamb in their flock that kept the children entertained. They also incorporated a lot of in-jokes to keep the adults entertained as well, as well as some symbolism. For instance, there are a couple of times where the directors equate people to sheep (Shaun gets his ideas from advertisements on the side of buses). There was always something to keep everyone entertained in Shaun and his quest.
I can honestly say that I felt there was no ill will in the film, aside from the antagonist in the form of an animal control specialist named Trumper, who comes off as more silly than evil. In a year that has seen great family films already, this is what sets SHAUN THE SHEEP above them all. While PADDINGTON was a pleasant surprise, and INSIDE OUT was another Pixar triumph, they both depended on that emotional down-note that transitions to a climactic payoff. While it’s nice to see family films develop more of a heart and emotional connection, sometimes you just need to realize there’s beauty in the simplicity. SHAUN THE SHEEP relied on its strengths to entertain all the way through, making the entire 85-minute run a highly imaginative payoff, and making it the best family film of 2015.
SHAUN THE SHEEP opens in theaters tomorrow.