Shaun the Sheep Movie Review
The lack of exceptionally articulate children who review films and home media creates the need for adults, of varying stages of development, to offer opinions on movies which may be aimed primarily at kids. This obvious conflict can make for all sorts of trouble. Should these children's films appeal to wider audiences, and should they be penalized if they do not? Does that create a free pass, in a sense, by lowering standards to such a degree where the win is just self-contained entertainment that fends off boredom? Will anyone care either way?
Certainly if film reviews are being read by adults it's understandable to want to aim for those sensibilities. Indeed, it's difficult to predict children's reactions to a movie and quite debatable as to whether one should be factoring that in to any kind of even softly critical analysis. Judging on the merits seems to be the fairest route. Standards probably shouldn't be altered to any great extent based on budget, genre or intended audience.
The usual cause for exploring this topic has often been the films made at Pixar, and I've personally covered a number of these movies previously on this very site. What has almost always held me back on many of them has been the consistent refusal to leave beyond certain formulaic tropes like the presence of villains and peril in favor of exhibiting the confidence of character and storytelling that nonetheless usually exists in the Pixar world. Oftentimes we see danger as a narrative crutch instead of a naturally flowing effect of what's come before in the story. Far too much emphasis is given to an antagonist rather than expanding the dimension of the main characters. (In fairness, this year's Inside Out dispenses with much of that formulaic predictability.)
All of this, somewhat circuitously, brings me to Aardman and, specifically, Shaun the Sheep Movie. From afar - an ocean away - I've admired Aardman for years now. There's so much quiet consistency and delight there with nary a misstep. The pitfalls often afflicting Pixar seem to miss Aardman. One could argue the canvas is quite different but the parallels nonetheless withstand the comparison. Maybe there's less ambition to Aardman? Or perhaps it's just a matter of retaining creative standards beyond commercial considerations.
I take it Aardman is appreciated and treasured more on its home turf than in the United States, but if any readers happen to be new to the stop-motion animation studio then the journey absolutely must start with Wallace & Gromit. The feature-length The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is sublime and the earlier shorts are perhaps even better. It was actually in the W&G short "A Close Shave" where Shaun the Sheep was first introduced. He's since been spun off into his own quite popular television program, aimed primarily at children, and now there's the movie. In both, Shaun carries on at Mossy Bottom farm alongside other animals. Both series and movie share a complete lack of spoken dialogue.
The film's plot finds Shaun and his fellow sheep desiring to have a little relaxation time in the house, away from the farmer and his dog. Complications ensue when the farmer, put to sleep by the hypnotizing effect of jumping sheep, has his caravan come undone and bound toward the big city. Memory loss and a zealous animal control officer further muddy the waters. Shaun and the other sheep, alongside dog Bitzer, are tasked with getting the farmer to return to Mossy Bottom unscathed.
Because there's no dialogue, the film relies entirely on its visuals both for narrative and any gags. The effect brings to mind silent film slapstick as well as parts of the Wallace & Gromit series. It forces the viewer to actively pay attention to what's on screen, a task that might seem inherent to the film experience yet, in the age of distraction via smart phones, probably isn't as much as it once was. The jokes are frequently worth laughing out loud at, whether it's a clever reference to Banksy or a more simple and slapstick-y take on physical comedy. The entire fancy restaurant scene with the sheep is total brilliance, and as hilarious as any single sequence you're likely to find in film this year.
There are also the trademark low-key Aardman examples of heart and humor, as when we see the animals awaiting potential adoption at the shelter get fancied up and excited as a couple of humans pass through. The rejection that follows nags at you a bit. That the film doesn't overplay this (or anything, really) makes it persist that much stronger. Similarly, the recurring use of the older photograph showing the farmer, Shaun, Bitzer, and other sheep inspires an oddly effective melancholy which seeps into the viewer's consciousness. A sense of growing older is there, as is the memory brought upon by nostalgia. It's a perfect distillation of a mood, and, because it is so relatively underplayed, there's no sap here at all.
The end result, for those needing a pull-quote sort of summation, is that Shaun the Sheep Movie is an absolute delight. It's funny and charming and resists being needlessly infantile. I would imagine children will appreciate the dialogue-free physical humor just as adults should enjoy the smart, nuanced lack of pandering.
While Shaun the Sheep Movie has already been available to home viewers in the UK for months now the Region A release arrives via Lionsgate just in time for the holiday season. The release includes Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital Copy code, and has a slipcover. It's locked to Region A.
Video quality is exceptionally good. The stop motion feel of the movie is retained and even accentuated here. There's one particular sequence involving water that takes on a magical effect of clearly showing the inherent artifice involved without ever taking us out of the moment. Colors and textures look excellent. The film is presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
An English language DTS-HD 5.1 track consists of sound effects and music since there is no dialogue but it registers nicely. The surrounding noises across the soundtrack help to create a warm, welcoming listen.
A few special features are included on the disc. These are highlighted by a twelve-minute making-of featurette. There's an additional behind the scenes (2:30) extra focusing somewhat more narrowly on a single sequence. Viewers can "Meet the Characters" (3:57) in a piece on the various figures and plot elements that comprise the movie and "Meet the Crew" (3:06) via some short interviews. A neat poster gallery that parodies famous movie advertisements rounds things out on the disc.