Sunday, 5 April 2015

Movie Review: Shaun The Sheep Movie (2015)

When I was a kid, a friend of the family gave me a CD-ROM containing an Aardman showreel with a bunch of their commercials, a couple of Angry Kid shorts and even a scene from Chicken Run. Over the next year or so, I would just watch everything on that CD over and over again; I think I’d still be doing that now, if I hadn’t unfortunately lost it some years back. Along with giving me a better appreciation for the artistry behind animation and a mind state that viewed advertising as a means of entertainment more than anything else, it also cemented in my brain that Aardman was a force to reckoned with. Between their more family friendly works like Wallace & Gromit and The Pirates: Band Of Misfits, their darker material like Chicken Run and Angry Kid and even their commercials like the classic Chevron talking cars and that one condom PSA 'Nobs In Space' (yeah, check that one out here), Aardman have maintained a consistent track record that very few production companies, animated or otherwise, can lay claim to. The only possible contender for their position at the top is Laika, but they’re still relative newcomers so only time will tell on that front. So, when the trailers hit for Aardman’s new feature film… no question, even if I wasn’t doing reviews, I had to see this thing. This is Shaun The Sheep.

The plot: Shaun (Justin Fletcher), one of many sheep in a flock taken care of by The Farmer (John Sparkes), thinks that they need a day off. He hatches a plan to keep The Farmer out of the way so that they can have their well-deserved break, but it ends up working too well and The Farmer ends up lost in The Big City. With no other means of support, Shaun and the rest of the flock set out into the City to rescue, dodging the attempts of crazed Animal Containment worker Trumper (Omid Djalili) to get them locked up as best they can.

Now, as much as I gushed over my history with the company, there are still a fair few products of theirs that I haven’t gotten to yet, the original Shaun The Sheep TV show being one of them. As such, there aren’t going to be any comparisons to it in this review and it will be looked at purely as its own entity. Such a viewpoint is actually rather appropriate for this movie as this is so much its own entity that it stands out from every other family film that has come in the last several years and for one simple reason: No dialogue. Aside from some songs on the soundtrack with lyrics in them, you will not hear any intelligible words in this entire movie; instead, all the characters communicate in basic grunts and animal noises. Basically, it’s what the atrocious Walking With Dinosaurs tried to do last year but that Aardman and its clout in the industry actually allowed them to do this time around without studio interference: Tell a story completely visually. Now, considering the average runtime of a Shaun The Sheep episode is about 7 minutes and this film is closer to 90 minutes, this method of story-telling could have been fumbled around with in lesser hands but this film has a surprising amount of content within to fill in the runtime.

For one thing, this follows in the footsteps of their last film The Pirates: Band Of Misfits and crammed in as many sight gags as they could into every scene they could. They range from center stage, like a pretty puntastic gag about the old nursery rhyme of the cow jumping over the moon, to blink-and-you’ll-miss-them, like a reference to Breaking Bad of all things that unless you’re actively looking for it, you’ll be lucky to catch it on your first viewing like I did. This kind of attention to detail is just the tip of the iceberg that is this film’s fantastic sense of humour. There’s a fair bit of potty humour sprinkled throughout, some of it even adding into the plot in moments that I genuinely didn’t see coming, but a lot of it is focused on the aforementioned visuals as well as some good old-fashioned slapstick. There’s far, far too many jokes for me to round them off and their consistency is just that good that I can’t even point out any particular favourites; needless to say, this is a damn funny watch.

The story is about as basic as it gets and may even remind some old school Cartoon Network junkies of Sheep In The Big City, something that at least one person involved with the movie had to be aware of because the advertising for this movie is a little too on the nose. Not that that really matters in the long run, because the simplistic story works greatly in this film’s favour. Without having to deal with needless fluff (aside from what’s on the sheeps’ heads) like side-plots or annoying side characters, this film can stick to the good stuff and not outstay its welcome in any regard. Everything that exists within the film is here for a reason; nothing feels like it could be cut or even should be cut to make for a leaner and more fulfilling watch. And it isn’t even all jokes, because this film even manages to push for the emotional button at unexpectedly times; the biggest example of this is during the Baa Baa Shop Quintet, a pun so awesome that I seriously wish I could take credit for it myself but alas this is actually what the segment is listed under in the credits, where the already great soundtrack hits its high point and makes for a scene that rivals Mockingjay’s The Hanging Tree in terms of efficacy of music in film, even considering how much I’ve praised that sequence already.

Since this is Aardman, it should even need to be stated but the animation is gorgeous. Their work with plasticine has always looked great but here they use to breathe so much life into both the setting and the characters. The locales of The Big City and Shaun’s farm home are so vibrant and detailed that they almost feel like characters themselves and the actual characters, despite not ever speaking a word, have a lot of personality to them. Not to completely discount the voice actors here, as even noises require a degree of talent to pull off and everyone here has it in spades, but the facial expressions and body language employed by the character models here… words cannot express how refreshing it is to see this much effort put into a film, any film, and to see it pay off this grandly. The kind of details that are usually handled by dialogue, like character motivation, emotional state and relationships, are portrayed through seemingly simple gestures that show them all stunningly well, even better than some live-action movies at times.

All in all, while I personally prefer more talking in my movies, I am not for a second going to mark down this movie because it is so rare for a film to cut out all the aggravating noise and just let the visuals do the talking, especially a film aimed at younger audiences. The animation is brilliant Aardman-grade claymation, the acting is bare bones but is actually more effective because of that, the lean plot leaves little room for error and aside from taking advantage of an age-old writing trope it still works out, the sense of humour this film utilizes is perfect for kids while still being entertaining for older audiences and the soundtrack helps to tie it all together. It ranks higher than Selma, as there isn’t a single moment where this film doesn’t engage, but it goes just below Top Five, a telltale sign of just how much I value a good script. The Aardman name alone should warrant me giving this a high recommendation, but for anyone out there who can appreciate a mostly visual family-friendly film, check this one out; the numerous sight gags warrant multiple viewings and the overall quality of the production more than merit that prospect.

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