Shaun the Sheep Movie (Mark Burton/Richard Starzak, 2015)
The English animation studio Aardman Animations – best known for its Wallace and Gromit short films, television series and one feature – has long been a favorite of mine, producing delightful absurdist confections that I can watch multiple times without losing interest. Still, while I almost always marvel at their stop-motion ingenuity (and love the very British teeth with which they design all of their animals), I have not loved all of their work equally: their first feature-length movie, Chicken Run, was a winner; The Pirates! Band of Misfits (in spite of its Oscar nomination) was a dud. In some ways I prefer their earlier, more raw work, in which the animation may not be up to today’s standards, but the ideas shine with sparkling mischief, such as Peter Lord’s wonderful setting of Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares for Me” or Nick Parks’ playful mockumentary Creature Comforts.
Now we have a new feature, directed by neither Lord nor Park – stalwarts of Aardman’s past – which follows the adventures of Shaun the Sheep, who has had his own BBC television series since 2007, and is apparently a character who first appeared in the 1995 Wallace and Gromit short A Close Shave. I knew nothing about Shaun going into the film, but I went hoping for something at least as fun as “Chicken Run.” What I got was not quite up to that standard, but still (mostly) entertaining, and a movie that is sure to appeal to young kids, making it the perfect cinematic destination for families now that everyone has seen Minions and Inside Out.
Shaun and his ovine brethren live in relative harmony with their farmer master – the movie opens with a home-movie montage of their earlier happy days on the farm – but long for just one day off from the quotidian routine. Inspired by a bus-side billboard urging them to just get away, they come up with what should be a harmless plan to lure the farmer back to bed (what puts people to sleep? counting sheep!) so they can run off and frolic … somewhere else. Things go dreadfully wrong, however, and soon Shaun and company – accompanied by a most unhappy guard dog – are adrift in the big city, looking for the lost farmer. Will they find him before a villainous animal control representative finds them and locks them up? Watch and find out.
There are plenty of very funny moments in the movie – including the sleepy sheep counting – but also passages where the story drags. Unfortunately, when that happens, the filmmakers often choose to create pop-music montages that feel more about marketing that particular song than about furthering the plot. Indeed, the music, overall, is the weakest part of the film (except for one delightful “baaa-baaa-shop” scene which is actually quite cute). I loved every aspect of the animal containment center, though: it’s designed to look like a prison, complete with an Orange Is the New Black “Crazy Eyes” character. Overall, the plusses outweigh the minuses, even if the sum total never quite comes close to the masterpieces of yore.