Genre: Animation, Adventure, Family
Directed by: Mark Burton & Richard Starzack
Starring: Andy Nyman, Nick Park, Justin Fletcher, John Sparkles
Like taking a deep breath of Devonshire air in the height of spring, Shaun the Sheep is a film that’s fresh, fulfilling and deserves to be savoured. With so many studios now solely reliant on CGI to create their animated output, the opportunity to once more revisit the stop motion magic that has held young and old alike spellbound since the first Creature Comforts back in 1989, is one to be cherished.
The pressure on Aardman Animation to deliver a film that manages to personify the same sensational slapstick silliness of the Shaun the Sheep TV show is unfathomably high. After all Shaun is a not just a national treasure, he’s an international star with a long-running series of short 7 minute episodes that’s now watched in 170 countries.
His popularity has arguably even eclipsed that of the studio’s original stars Wallace & Gromit. Their cinematic outing, 2005’s The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, was a master class in small screen to big screen transition, and here from the outset it’s clear that directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzack are determined to follow in that film’s giant rabbit paws as best they can.
Initially it does feel like they’ve bitten off more grass than they can chew. Despite a cleverly constructed opening montage that establishes the characters for those not in the know, much of Shaun the Sheep’s opening 20 minutes simply feels like a succession of skits adapted from the TV show and strung together with no breaks in-between. It’s not without a trough full of charisma of course, watching Shaun play about the farmyard is effortlessly entertaining, but it never feels like enough to justify the shift to the cinematic form.
Once the eponymous little lamb, with his flock in tow, heads to the Big City in search of their missing owner however, the film ignites with an infectious madcap energy that radiates from every corner of the screen. And it doesn’t relent until long after the end credits have finished rolling.
From a visual standpoint this is arguably Aardman’s most beguilingly beautiful big screen adventure to date. The metropolitan setting pulses with a brisk vibrancy that encapsulates the electric ebb and flow of life in a British market town. Here trendsetting hairdressers are considered local celebrities, meat can still primarily be brought in butchers, the smell of coffee from the various Barista Style cafés hangs heavy in the air, and every other shop is a charity shop. It may all be made of Plasticine, but behind this rubber is a reality that’s authentic and adorable.
Soon enough, the charm of Shaun and his surroundings wraps around you with the warmth and comfort of a thick woolly jumper on a cold winters morning. As with the TV show any communication between characters, be they man or ram, is reduced to a series of muted mutterings and bleats. But, as Gromit indelibly proved, you don’t need to talk to be able to speak. With the help of Aardman’s terrific team of animators, Burton and Starzack are able to tell a story with great heart. The second half in particular benefits from some commendably mature emotional beats that movingly address the cognitive hallmarks of homesickness.
First and foremost though, Shaun the Sheep is a comedy. And boy oh boy, what a brilliant comedy it is. Burton and Starzack, working with co-writer Richard Goleszowski, have drawn great inspiration from various comedic sources, but their most prominent one is Jacques Tati. Echoes of Tati’s joyfully jesting masterpiece Playtime can be seen in every superbly timed slapstick fall. Although Tati cannot be credited with the film’s most inspired gag, which involves crooning sheep coming together to form a literal baa-baa-shop quartet.
This joke, like the film itself, has a quintessentially British feel to it, but crucially its appeal is widespread. The Shaun the Sheep Movie is one that, by its very design, has been created for all ages and nationalities. And, wherever you are and whatever your age, it’s guaranteed to leave you with a big grin on your face. A shear delight!