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Shaun the Sheep Movie

August 5, 2015
Shaun the Sheep Movie

As we come to the end of the summer and kids brace themselves for the return to school, we in America finally get to see the movie British audiences have been enjoying since February. And while Shaun the Sheep Movie lacks the depth of Inside Out, it’s executed with an impeccable sense of visual storytelling and humor. Richard Starzak and Mark Burton, who shared writing and directing duties, deliver a comedy whose like I haven’t seen since Jacques Tati.

Like Tati’s classic M. Hulot films, Shaun the Sheep could work perfectly well in total silence. There’s no dialogue to speak of; the voice actors mumble and grumble with an emotional intonation that mirrors their characters’ expressions, but you can get by on the faces alone. Even the one gag I noticed that seems to rely on the soundtrack is in fact cleverly structured to communicate all the really essential information in pictures.

For those not familiar with the series, Shaun and his sheepish friends live on Mossy Bottom Farm in the north of England. Life can get pretty dull and routine, being herded from the barn to a pen and back every day. So the flock try to add excitement in various ways that go oft awry.

In the movie, they lull the Farmer to sleep and stash him in a trailer that rolls away down a hill, all the way to The Big City, chased by the sheepdog, Blitzer. But then the pigs take over the farmhouse that the sheep wanted to play in and there’s no feed around, so Shaun sets off to bring back the Farmer, followed by the rest of the flock on the next bus. The rest of the film follows their adventures as they experience new things in the city, make new friends, and avoid Trumper, the Animal Containment officer.

Trumper is mostly here because a feature length movie seems to need a particular antagonist and stakes leading up to a big climax. It’s the most significant departure from Tati’s meandering, observational style. The film is at its best when it lets the sheep wander from one situation to another, just letting the funny come naturally.

Or, at least letting it look that way. There’s actually a lot of thought that goes into pulling off the humor just so, doing it without the benefit of dialogue to explain what’s happening, and in making it seem to flow so effortlessly. Gags build on each other in unexpected ways. A messy eater in one scene is a sly bit of characterization and mild slapstick, but in a later scene the stains on his shirt are mistaken as an avant-garde expressionist print.

And then there’s the way the movie plays with analogical thinking to highlight just how complex our social norms are. The sheep are used to eating what’s placed in front of them, so when the waiter in a fancy restaurant passes out the menus, they set to eating them before Shaun points out another diner opening his instead. But now that he’s been set up as the model they start repeating his mistakes.

This insight into the role of context and perception in determining social reality is another strong resonance with Tati’s films. Radically simplifying the interactions helps clarify the sheep’s point of view, like M. Hulot’s, as outsiders looking into the world we find so familiar. Tati used this to comment directly on the changes he saw in post-war French society, but Starzak and Burton put it to great use in a movie for kids; never underestimate the power of absurdity, surprise, and humor in cementing a concept in a child’s mind. In fact, even today’s kids might well get a kick out of Mon Oncle.

The attention to detail also extends to the scenery. Even when shots aren’t packed with background gags they’re very carefully staged. The little text that’s visible is used sparingly, and always to great effect. If it’s not supporting the story or a gag, printing is made unrecognizable. The same goes for the people: there are almost always at least a few in the background, but never just filling up space. And, I should note, they reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity of a large English city better than most mainstream films do.

If it weren’t for the misfortune of coming out on the heels of Inside Out, I’d say that this was all but a shoo-in for the best animated feature this year. But even if it’s not the best, Shaun the Sheep is one of the most remarkable films this summer has to offer.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.

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