Aardman’s “Shaun the Sheep” movie is a very old-fashioned affair, and it works, mostly, to its advantage. While other contemporary animated films are loud with attempts at snappy verbal jokes and pop culture references, “Shaun” is completely free of any intelligible dialogue, offering instead hefty amounts of visual gags, slapstick and physical comedy in the tradition of Looney Tunes and other old cartoons we all know and grew up with. The plot is extremely simple and easy to follow. And while most modern mainstream animation has an extremely slick look created and/or polished by computers, this sheep adventure doesn’t let us forget that the animators were, essentially, playing with toys.
The visible and recognisable textures of the models, in characteristic Aardman style, were by far my favourite thing about the “Shaun” movie, as its handmade technique fits in perfectly with the plot of the movie. The story takes Shaun and his fellow sheep on a quest in The Big City, in an attempt to retrieve their grumpy Farmer and get him to enjoy his little farm and life amongst animals again. It makes perfect sense for a story that celebrates simple pleasures and a rustic environment to have its craft on display. Fingerprints in the clay, fabrics, woolly sheep- everything looks delightfully tactile.
The downside to its back-to-basics approach in terms of narrative is that the nuts and bolts can start to feel a little too familiar if, like me, you’re an older viewer who has seen plenty of other cartoons. “Shaun the Sheep” targets a younger audience than most animated films that get a wide cinema release; the kids that were in the cinema with me enjoyed it immensely (“It was amazing! The best!” said a little boy to his mom while we were exiting the theatre) but as an adult, you may find yourself a bit impatient because you’ll be able to predict not just the general story beats but even the punchlines of individual jokes. This is the kind of movie with more than one fart joke, and women who get accidentally pinched on the bum and turn around to slap the first dude they see. One particular operating room scene seems lifted from the Mr. Bean movie. The villain is a bloodthirsty dogcatcher, like in a dozen other kids’ movies (I’m starting to wonder whether the screenwriters responsible for this kind of plot point are actually longing to live in cities overrun with stray animals. Because if they do, they may want to move to Bucharest.) And so on.
Still, even though the “Shaun” movie is not quite as good as previous Aardman features like “Curse of the Were-Rabbit” or “Chicken Run”, it’s a lot of fun, an adorable little film that can be recommended to families with kids, Aardman fans and to those interested in the art and craft of stop-motion animation, not necessarily in that order. It moves fast, it’s often funny and sometimes sweet. There is nobody quite like Aardman out there with the big players in animation at the moment, and no matter what their next project may be, I’ll be buying a ticket as soon as it’s out. What Is next, actually, now that we’re at it? A Morph movie? Creature Comforts? Rex the Runt?