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Shaun the Sheep Movie

Theatrical Review


Aardman Animations; 85 minutes

Director: Mark Burton, Richard Starzak


Written by on August 5, 2015 




When it comes to films specifically marketed to children, popular culture seems to have decided that, for the purposes for artistic merit, there shall be Pixar at the top and then there shall be everything else. This means that whenever a How to Train Your Dragon or Boxtrolls comes along, it seems to take people by surprise. Given the specific artistic challenges of creating a film of real soul and wit and substance for a younger audience, however, this should not be the case. Kids’ movies at their best and brightest are what one might call Pure Cinema — a perfect example of what film can do that no other medium ever could — and Shaun the Sheep Movie is perhaps the best example of this idea since Wall-E.

Created using the same utterly delightful stop-motion that will be familiar to fans of Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep tells a story that is at once deep, moving, and riotously funny while never employing a single word of dialogue. After a truly winsome opening sequence setting up the backstory of a farmer and his flock of sheep, we are introduced to the drudgery of daily routine that life on the farm has become. Shaun, not content to let this march of mediocrity continue, concocts a plan to distract both farmer and his dog long enough to allow him and his flock a day of recreation. But then a series of unexpected mishaps lead to calamity, and Shaun and the flock must travel to the Big City to bring stability back to the farm.

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The ins and outs of the plot are at once fairly simple, and yet wholly unexpected and hilarious. This is a world in which sheep leaping over fences have the magical ability to put anyone watching to sleep, and where an animal in human clothes becomes indistinguishable from a real person. The whole film operates on the kind of cartoon dream logic founded in old Merry Melodies shorts. Yet its screwball comic energy is wholly modern and unafraid to take breaks for moments of true melancholy. Like any great story, Shaun the Sheep takes time to invest the audience’s empathy in these characters, and delivers real emotional connection and catharsis along with the sheer entertainment on display.

Being the modern equivalent of a silent film, it takes a lot of truly masterful craftsmanship from both a design and directorial standpoint for this film to work as well as it does. Each individual sheep has its own unique look which informs its very unique personality, and every other character benefits from the same attention to detail. Both person and animal are expressively animated, utilizing broad gestures and expressions that are likewise modulated to the utmost degree so that they never tip over into grotesquery or camp. What few vocal expressions there are in this film come off less like muted dialogue than a pure distillation of feeling, be it confusion, happiness, or sorrow.

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All of this craftsmanship exists in a brisk film, clocking in as it does at just under an hour and a half, and yet the story is at once complex, layered, and refreshingly crisp. Directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak give each beat of the story just enough time to impact fully before moving to the next scene, the next set piece, never letting a moment drag or linger beyond its need. This is a function of making a movie for small children, but the surprising thing is how expertly the tone and pace is modulated. The story never feels overly frenetic or impatient, coming off instead as lean and agile. The lack of dialogue and the trust they place in their silent storytelling allows for emotion to rule the story, rather than words. A single tear does all the work of an extended monologue, and more efficiently.

In this way, Shaun the Sheep stands as a perfect emblem of the kind of things that only film can accomplish. It is pure experience, a meticulously and joyously composed ride through a story that explores a full range of human emotion. Devoid of dialogue yet rich in character, Shaun the Sheep is not just the best kids’ film this year, it may well stand as one of the best films of the year, period.

Shaun the Sheep Movie is now in wide release.


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