Thursday, August 6, 2015

Farm to Fable: SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE


Aardman helps keep the stop motion animation tradition alive with a distinct blend of expertly choreographed cartoon slapstick and dry British silliness unlike anything else in the family film marketplace. Their latest, Shaun the Sheep Movie, is a beautifully realized work of gentle tactile whimsy, like a big and delicate playset in which the most adorable toys act out appealing little comic dramas. The story concerns a little sheep named Shaun, first introduced in a Wallace and Gromit short before spinning off into his own cartoon series, hence the “movie” appended to the title here. Over the course of the movie, Shaun learns simple elementary kids’ movie lessons: teamwork, resourcefulness, courage, kindness, and appreciating loyal friends and family. It’s thin sweetness, but because the animators at Aardman are such geniuses at sight gags, layering the frame with funny details and staging briskly clever follies, it’s a constant joy.

The story is a simple “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse” narrative, crossed with a reverse “Parable of the Lost Sheep.” Down on a farm in an English countryside, an agrarian paradise has become routine for the inhabitants. The farmer sticks to his schedule, and so do the animals, day after day feedings and washings and shearings happening so regularly you could set your clock to it. Shaun just wants a day off, so he convinces his flock to trick their kindly keeper into counting them, thus getting him to fall fast asleep. (Right away you get the level of humor at work here, which is partly a classic picture book technique working over common phrases and concepts in a wry way that anyone can enjoy.) Unluckily, an elaborate chain of unintended accidents leaves the farmer stranded in The Big City, a knock on the head making him an amnesiac. Not only can’t he get back to take care of his flock, he doesn’t even remember he should. It’s up to Shaun and his pals to head to the city and get their farmer back.

This simple idea is used to stage a silly city symphony, a light and amiable collection of inspirations (Tati’s Playtime, Miller’s Babe: Pig in the City, and the metropolis itself has to be named after Satyajit Ray’s The Big City) synthesized into a soft and colorful children’s entertainment. It’s an entirely non-verbal film, the animals and humans alike speaking in grunts, mutters, murmurs, muddy interjections, wordless shouts, and lots of baaing, of course. Following the flock as they meander down city streets (sometimes stacked on top of each other wearing long coats, the better to blend in), they find themselves in bus stations, fancy restaurants, junkyards, and other places with plenty of comic potential. We also meet dogs, ducks, and cats. They’re all trying to stay one step ahead of a cruel animal control employee. Meanwhile, the farmer bumbles around tying to regain his sense of purpose. And, back on the farm, the pigs have taken over the farmhouse (shades of Animal House).

Visual gags carry the day, writer-directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak and their team of animators finding unexpected flourishes. They take obvious jokes (like an animal shelter full of critters inhabiting jailhouse stereotypes) a step farther, into delightfully weird images (recurring shots of a mean dog who silently stares with unblinking bloodshot eyes) that are then taken even one step farther, building a funny cutaway to a great payoff. You might expect three sheep to stack inside a coat to look vaguely human, but would you think they’d collide with two men inside a horse costume? That’s the sort of thing that’s so charmingly unexpected, and yet somehow perfectly understandable, it’s hard to resist.

Most unexpected, perhaps, is how sweetly touching it becomes without feeling sappy. Even though I was consistently entertained and found much to appreciate about its handcrafted qualities, I was nonetheless surprised how invested I became in the flock’s desire to be reunited with their farmer friend. It’s partly the fault of an original faux-Beach Boys song “Feels Like Summer” threaded throughout the film, in the opening where the baby sheep first meet their shepherd, then later a song they can sing together while lost, before finally playing triumphantly again once we reach the inevitable, but well-earned, happy conclusion. But it’s also in how immediately loveable Aardman can make these cartoon animals, in cute expressions and enjoyable antics. Their stop-motion style is instantly recognizable, and irreplaceable. We're lucky to have them.

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