By Preston Wilder
Cartoons have a problem: they’re expensive to make, yet they’re aimed at kids – a large but limited audience. Making something that’ll appeal to all ages, beyond the juvenile ghetto, is the cartoonist’s bugbear – the usual solution being the Shrek template, with jokes for the different demographics (a fart joke here, a pop-culture reference there) shoehorned together, which works commercially but makes for crude, lumpy movies.
A more elegant design may be found in Shaun the Sheep Movie, made by the good folks at Aardman Animation (Shaun made his debut in a Wallace and Gromit short 20 years ago) and based on a hit TV series. Quite simply, nobody talks in this film; there’s no dialogue per se, just the universal language of animal grunts and human gibberish. The result is suitable, by definition, for kids of all ages (though it may be slightly overlong for the very young) – but will also entice non-chaperone adults with some wildly clever gags, crack comic timing and an overall sweetness (even, dare we say it, innocence) that’s sadly missing from most multiplex animation.
The plot is a sheep variation on Babe: Pig in the City, albeit not so dark. Shaun and his friends end up in the Big City in pursuit of the farmer, who’s lost in the urban jungle after a caravan mishap. “In a city this big, it’s easy to not exist,” says a song on the soundtrack (almost the only verbal cue in the movie) – and there’s something undoubtedly pastoral in the Aardman brand, verging on nostalgia for an older, more comprehensible England. The city is bustling and multi-cultural, with skaters and graffiti; Shaun’s little village (‘Mossy Bottom’) is a more human place altogether, even if populated mostly by sheep.
The film is infused with ideas of Englishness that English people tend to appreciate. Everyone’s very law-abiding in Mossy Bottom. Bitzer the dog dutifully stops and waits when the traffic lights turn red, even though he’s chasing a runaway caravan at the time; one of the sheep notes a sign reading “Please shut the gate” and duly shuts it, even though the gate has been smashed to smithereens. The animals live quietly, yet there’s a zany sense of humour bubbling away beneath the placid surface. One sheep combs his fringe upon waking up, checks himself out approvingly and goes “Heeeey”, like a fluffy Fonzie.
The film is similarly sly and subversive, zany without feeling the need to be hyperactive in Cartoon Network/Spongebob Squarepants style. That said, it’s packed with gags – many of them inspired, though the bits aimed at grown-ups are discreetly tucked away in the background. A cow gets attached to the runaway caravan, then the car stops suddenly and the beast is catapulted into the sky, passing over a pub called The Moon on its way down; ‘the cow jumped over the moon’, geddit? – but it’s OK if you don’t, and the gag is over in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment anyway. (In the same vein, I liked the briefly-glimpsed sign informing us that the Big City is twinned with La Grande Ville in France and Grosstadt in Germany.) Aardman are especially adept at the final-punctuation gag, a tiny detail to end a scene with a chuckle. Example: the pigs sneak out of the house before the farmer comes back, pause at the exit – then quickly wipe the doorknob for fingerprints.
Silence is refreshing in Shaun the Sheep Movie, especially in an age when Hollywood cartoons often feel like being trapped on a bus with a party of chattering eight-year-olds. The film has a timeless quality, even with social media and celebrity culture featured in the plot and the “animal containment” guy doing De Niro’s “I’m watching you” gesture from Meet the Parents – yet the comedy isn’t slapstick, it’s character comedy (even if the characters don’t talk). It’s a comedy of making plans and trying to ingratiate oneself. Sheep in a human world are a bit like kids in a grown-up world, working out the rules as they go along; they alternately try to blend in – there’s a funny scene in a posh restaurant when the sheep (disguised as customers) try to do whatever the other diners are doing – and keep out of sight. But the film also knows that it’s inherently funny when a sheep gives a thumbs-up, or drinks a cocktail, or makes a smoothie.
What else made me smile? Quite a lot, actually. A goldfish plays the harmonica. A canine prisoner has the words “BARK” and “BITE” tattooed on the knuckles of his hands (sorry, paws). A duck gets bribed with slices of bread. Shaun the Sheep Movie was clearly made by clever people – but, crucially, they don’t feel the need to shove their clever jokes in your face. Any patient audience will be charmed by this film. Kids should like it too.
DIRECTED BY Mark Burton & Richard Starzak
US 2015 85 mins