SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE (2015)
Directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak
Studio Canal, 85 minutes, PG
* * * *
Nick Park and Aardman Studios set the gold standard for claymation, that anally retentive form of animation in which pliable models are minutely manipulated for each film frame. Park is the guiding spirit behind this project, though his role is that of executive producer rather than director. Those who have followed his output already know that Shaun the Sheep was a character introduced in the delightful 1995 Wallace and Gromit film A Close Shave. Shaun proved so endearing that, in 2007, he got his own series in Britain (130 episodes and counting). This, however, is Shaun's first time as lead sheep in a wild and wooly big screen adventure.
Any skeptical or cynical charge one might level against the film is true. If you know Park's work and values, you'll find them recycled on the screen. He has long been an animal rights' activist—though contrary to popular belief, Park is not a vegetarian—and all Park movies place well-meaning critters in jeopardy from menacing humans looking to cage or devour them. Shaun and his associates have to fend off a power-mad Animal Containment Officer in this film. Akin to other Park features, the story of Shaun is a thin contrivance there solely to link a series of sketches and capers. The story for Shaun is essentially a rework of Chicken Run (2000), which was a takeoff of The Great Escape. You'll see other Park trademarks: goofy inventions, makeshift fantasy contraptions, hair's width escapes, and frenetic chases. If one is honest, nearly all of the major characters are recycled: The Farmer is a mumbling hayseed-meets-grunge boy version of Wallace, Bitzer is a less-adorable Gromit, the Flock variants of Chicken Run fowl, and the Naughty Pigs an ongoing gag. To which I reply, so what? Chuck Jones repeated characters and ideas for Looney Tunes, and Aardman productions are essentially cartoons in a different format. We watch both because they are wildly clever, are for adults as much as for children (maybe more so), and because they make us feel happy all over.
The story, such as it is, unspools in response to the universal theme of boredom. Shaun and all the barnyard animals love The Farmer who, in turn, sees them as part of his extended family. Shaun, however, can't help but notice that each day is pretty much the same—right down to the on-time arrival of the bus from the city. One day, though, a bus-side advertisement for a "A Day Off" prompts Shaun to consider that a 24-hour break in routine is just what a clever sheep such as he needs. He lulls The Farmer to sleep in a van and diverts Bitzer's attention, but his plan goes terribly awry when the van is dislodged and hurtles downhill toward The City. A sudden stop and The Farmer gets a knock on the head that leaves him with amnesia. Mayhem ensues when Shaun, the Flock, Bitzer, and an ugly stray they meet set out to find The Farmer and restore order from the chaos Shaun has unleashed.
As noted, Aardman films are not about structured narrative; they are inventive imaginings of what sort of adventures can be told by manipulating small figures. In this film, the challenge is even greater as no one speaks per se—even the humans are reduced to mumbles and dramatic gesticulations. The sheep, of course, baa, but with differing inflections. Put some music to it and you can even come up with an ovine approximation of the Blues Brothers! Shaun the Sheep references all manner of other forms and tropes: pantomime, prison films, mad inventors and, yes, The Great Escape (though this time the goal is to break in rather than out). The fun happens when the Aardman crew makes us look at ourselves through the button-eyes of their creations. Characters such as a snotty head waiter, golfers, and a vain Celebrity serve as butts for takedowns of bourgeois values and hipster airs, and The City itself becomes a metaphor for the inauthentic. I'll say no more except to remind you to look hard into each sequence for all the jokes put there for alert adults. And be sure to stay through the credits, if for no other reason to hear Tim Wheeler, Mark Thomas, and Rizzie Kicks warble the hysterical (and catchy) Shaun the Sheep song.
The whole film is a silly bit of fluff, but it's such a lark you won't care. I can't remember the last time I was in a cinema in which six- and sixty-year-olds were both laughing. Oh wait—it was Chicken Run. Note to Nick Park: Keep on recycling.