Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)

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Shaun and his flock had such a bright future ahead of them before their lives devolved into the same grinding routine.  He sees an opportunity to take a vacation, but what was supposed to be a bit of relaxation for his flock turns into a big city nightmare.  Richard Starzak and Mark Burton write and direct Shaun the Sheep Movie.

Oh grand - a misadventureSomething magical happened about three-quarters of the way through Shaun the Sheep.  I had laughed pretty steadily for many of the earlier scenes, but this one started with a sad air.  A poor little baby sheep was trying not to cry and their leader, Shaun, was doing his darndest to cheer the tyke up.  After some music he was playing the baby fell apart, he started to whistle, then his companions started to play along with improvised instruments, and together they cheered up the poor thing.

"My god," I thought, "they're a baa-cappella group."  Everyone in the theater enjoyed the scene, I'm just the only one who laughed at it.  That's the beauty of Aardman Animations, from Wallace and Gromit to Arthur Christmas they know how to tell jokes in a perfect visual way while making sure the punchlines are layered with each cut of the camera.  Even my sudden realization of the wonderful visual pun which manifested in the baa-capella group had yet another punchline after cutting away to reveal their sad farmer friend complete with sad music.  Just when it seems the man is going to have a revelation we cut back to the sheep, who have mostly stopped playing, except for the two free-styling the melody we hear.

Subtle differences between the sheep keep the characterization fresh even though they're functioning with roughly the same capabilities.

Subtle differences between the sheep keep the characterization fresh even though they're functioning with roughly the same capabilities.

It's a sweet moment, and funny not because of the immediate punchline, but because directors Richard Starzak and Mark Burton know that the key to great comedy is in structure and delivery.  Sometimes that means rapid-fire gags, and sometimes that means approaching a given scenario with a certain implacable logic to guide the characters.  Starzak and Burton, fitting Shaun's roots as a children's television hero, keep the logic at a child's level.  This does not mean stupid, nor does it mean preternaturally wise, but how a kid might see a set of tools and expect a given outcome.  What Starzak and Burton do is upend the expected outcome with every single scene, and even the mistakes don't go where we expect them to.

An early chase scene has the beleaguered dog Bitzer trying to catch a trailer running loose on the road with the sleeping Farmer inside.  Simple situation, what does he try to do?  Open the door.  But the door handle breaks off when he tries to open it and he's stuck there on the back of the trailer now.  So with the screw dangling loose, what does he try next?  Use his screwdriver to fix the broken door while he and the structure are careening along wildly with a train of sheep being dragged behind them.  More sophisticated logic systems might think of ways to stop the trailer but Starzak and Burton use the mentality of a child, not realizing the danger its in, to apply simple tools to an out of control situation.

I'm sure any parent whose had a kid try to cook breakfast or dinner for them will recognize the logic pattern and potentially disastrous results.  This makes for great storytelling in Starzak and Burton's hands because what is always the most simple and logical solution to us as audience members won't be the same to the flock and dog trying to get the farmer back.  The childlike way of thinking extends to the dialogue or complete lack thereof as all the characters speak gibberish (save a hilarious baritone voice any time Bitzer spots a bone).  All the characters have to feel and intuit their way through each situation, which is a much funnier way to approach scenarios like when the sheep disguise themselves (badly) as humans and no one can talk to them.  It's all confused glances, long harrumphs, and broad smiles - basically the best possible situation for animation.

Devoted readers will know I'm a sucker for a good "cat as Hannibal Lecter" gag, and Shaun the Sheep Movie provided a great one.

Devoted readers will know I'm a sucker for a good "cat as Hannibal Lecter" gag, and Shaun the Sheep Movie provided a great one.

This is where the cinematography by Charles Copping and Dave Alex Riddett helps keep the jokes clear.  The problem with Aardman's computer-driven films is that they ended up getting far too busy with jokes getting lost in the shuffle.  But Copping and Riddett, working with the limitations of stop-motion animation, frame and outline the action clearly while still hiding a surprise or two in the background.  It's not too far from the way the jokes are structured, as the environment shifts from one set of expectations we know (trailer run amok) that the characters don't (farmer thinking it's night outside because of a chalk drawing), and then framed through funny means (the glare of a seemingly insane dog through bars or when the farmer becomes the most photographed man in town because of his signature "sheep cut" hair-cut).

Starzak and Burton's intuition at keeping Shaun the Sheep Movie's logic to that childlike level pays off repeatedly.  I found myself laughing at a dog stuck at a crosswalk in the middle of nowhere just because he had a red light, or the very embarrassed-looking man trying to quietly scuttle away unnoticed from an animal control specialist caught in the rear end of a horse costume.  Shaun the Sheep Movie doesn't have the emotional insight of Inside Out, but by telling a story in funny and clear means without dialogue equals Pixar's accomplishment in other ways.  Aardman Animations never really left, but I'm happy they're back with stop-motion charm all the same.

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Tail - Shaun the Sheep MovieShaun the Sheep Movie (2015)

Screenplay written and directed by Richard Starzak and Mark Burton.
Cinematography by Charles Copping and Dave Alex Riddett.

Posted by Andrew

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