Aardman Animations, the wizards behind top stop-motion animated films like Chicken Run, Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and The Pirates! Band of Misfits are back with Shaun the Sheep Movie, a film based on one of their TV shows (which was in turn spun-off from one of their short films). Unlike their previous feature films, backed by DreamWorks and Sony, this one is being distributed by Lionsgate. While that means a much smaller marketing budget, if a film is good enough word of mouth can be the best way to earn your chops.

shaun1Shaun and his fellow sheep-mates want a day off from the monotony of farm life and find a way to make their farmer sleepy while distracting his dog. A series of mishaps later and the farmer is lost in the big city with no memory of who he was, while the sheep are on the lamb from a relentless animal control worker while trying to rescue their owner.

The most daring decision the filmmakers made when creating the story is to keep the entire movie dialogue-free. Yes, that’s in keeping with the TV show, but what works in a seven minute small screen episode is much more risky when projected onto the big screen with a feature length running time. This isn’t a silent film, by any means. The animals “talk” with baa’s, bleats, and barks. And the humans communicate with grunts and some indistinguishable mumblings. But there is no understandable work spoken in the film, meaning the story has to be told through the characters’ actions. In untalented hands that could be a recipe for disaster, but luckily Aardman accomplishes the difficult task with aplomb. Even the youngest audience member should have no problem keeping up with the plot. (Of course the plot isn’t really that complicated which, if we’re being honest, was probably a big help in making a mostly silent movie!)

While the story is a bit bare-bones, and mostly an excuse to get the characters into some wooly situations for some slapstick comedy, it is well done and tightly written. It definitely doesn’t have some of the issues other TV series based films do: this isn’t just an episode with lots of padding, and it isn’t just three episodes tied together with some bookends. One issue American audiences might have is the more gentle humor of Aardman. Don’t take that the wrong way. This isn’t a movie only kids will enjoy. And there is all the requisite potty humor Americans seem to demand from recent animated films. What I mean is Aardman doesn’t go for the non-stop laugh-out-loud moments or the funny-because-it’s-obnoxious jokes or the mean humor. Minions this is not! It may not be what audiences are used to but it’s a refreshing change from the norm.

shaun2Aardman is arguably the top studio when it comes to stop-motion animation, and they show off their skill impressively here. Character movements are amazingly smooth — it almost seems like the whole thing is computer animated. It is so incredible what they can do with clay! The only complaint I could make is on some of the character designs. Compared to their other movies like Chicken Run and Curse of the Were-Rabbit, several of the designs seemed a little more primitive. Now that may be due to the look of the show they’re trying to match, which I’m sure has a smaller budget. But it did seem like a step backwards for someone unfamiliar with the show.

In a movie with no dialogue music takes center stage. And fortunately Aardman is again up to the task. The score is fun and fitting and complements the action since words can’t. There were two pop-style songs (with words) that were kind of jarring. Not bad, and not enough to compeltely take you out of the movie, but definately distracting for a moment after so long with no one else speaking.

Shaun the Sheep Movie may not be a film kids are clamoring to go see based on the marketing gone overboard we usually get for animated films from the big studios. And it may not have the biggest laughs or get the highest box office. But if you give it a chance you will not be disappointed. The film is utterly charming, skillfully made, and filled with good-natured fun. You won’t have a baaaad word to say about it afterwards.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

Shaun the Sheep Movie
Lionsgate, Aardman
August 5, 2015
85 minutes
Rated PG
directed by Richard Starzak & Mark Burton