Sunday, November 29, 2015

"Shaun the Sheep Movie": Comedy Without Words

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Aardman Animations is pretty well renowned for their extensive catalog of stop-motion animation films and TV shorts, among which are the fantastic Chicken Run and legendary Wallace and Gromit.  Recently added to their catalog is a show aimed at a younger audience, but not any more wanting for charm.  Shaun the Sheep is centered around a fairly basic cartoon premise of barnyard animals and their clueless farmer.  Despite being aimed at kids, the show is universally funny family entertainment, mainly due to its reliance on cartoon slapstick and visual gags and a complete disregard for spoken humor.  In fact, the entire show’s dialogue is communicated in grunts and animal noises.  So when making a feature length movie adaptation of a show that only runs for seven minutes an episode, will the faithful wordlessness translate into consistent comedy?  The answer is most assuredly yes.

The film opens on a monotonous week on the farm, with Shaun and the rest of the sheep going through the daily motions of their lives.  One day, Shaun gets the idea to take a break and devises a plan to put the farmer to sleep so that he and the other sheep can watch some TV in the farmer’s house.  After a domino trail of ridiculous antics, the farmer is not only disposed of, but he has ended up in the nearby city, alone and with amnesia.  So it is up to the sheep and the faithful watchdog Bitzer to bring the farmer back home.

Given that the show is aimed at younger audiences, I was expecting a bit of a toned down version of what Aardman usually has to offer in their cinematic exploits.  This is only true in one respect, and that is in the obligatory absence of intelligible voicework.  There are still jokes in the form of written and other visual gags, and the fact that there is no dialogue to distract from that only makes those jokes stronger and funnier.  The slapstick isn’t reduced in the slightest, as Aardman uses their singular gifts in animation to create setpieces reminiscent of the best that Looney Tunes and early Disney had to offer.

And really, that’s the best thing that can be said about Shaun the Sheep.  It is a cartoon at its core, and it isn’t ashamed to be one.  Aardman recognizes that kids don’t need loud noises or constant chatter to stay entertained; with great timing and some wacky antics, one can tell a great story that people of all ages can enjoy.  Though necessarily grander in scale than the limited focus of the farm, the story is still instantly relatable and the characters instantly loveable without the necessity of telling us to love them.  More than anything, Aardman knows how to evoke childlike joy in a way that has since been lost to the bygone age of cartoon shorts.  Here’s hoping they keep doing just that.  But in the meantime, Shaun the Sheep Movie is just as worthy an addition to their catalog as any of its predecessors.

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