by Robert Bloomberg
Shaun the Sheep Movie says more in its 88 minutes than most films do in two hours, and does it without uttering a word. In a nod to classic silent films, the movie contains no dialog, but rather relies on wit, visual humor, grunts, groans, music and masterful stop-motion animation to tell its story. Co-writer-directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak cite Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton as inspirations and personal heroes.
The basic premise of the film is not unique: Shaun’s yearning for a break from the boredom of farm life leads to a wool-brained scheme and wild adventures in the big city. Babe: Pig in the City also involves farm animals in the big city and a farmer in distress. But this film is its own brilliant creation, one that will have parents laughing right along with their kids.
Fans of Aardman Animations will be delighted to discover that Shaun the Sheep Movie is right up there with Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit classics such as A Grand Day Out and The Wrong Trousers. Shaun is not just a kid’s movie, but truly respects its audience, unlike many recent big studio animated films that seem to be made solely to be turned into video games. The humor in Shaun stems from the fully developed characters and the situations. The slapstick moments are hilarious, more than worthy of Chaplin and Keaton, but the film also delivers moments of great emotional beauty and pathos. The montage over the opening credits is as powerful and beautifully conceived as the one in Pixar’s brilliant Up.
In a film with so many great set pieces it is difficult to choose just one example. But the scene in the snooty French restaurant (Le Chou Brule), with Shaun and the gang marginally disguised as humans trying to blend in, could be taught as a master class in comic movie making, live action or animation.
In addition, as an added treat for the adults, there are several nods to classic films (yes, even, dare I say it, The Silence of the Lambs). And despite the fact that these characters are made of latex and fleece on wire armatures, they deliver Academy Award-worthy performances. Credit for that goes to co-directors Burton and Starzak and their talented team of animators, set and costume designers, and musicians for bringing everything to life. Delivery took over two years of hard labor, with up to 16 separate teams working on multiple sets. In this painstaking process, each animator moves the characters a fraction of an inch at a time, shoots one frame, checks the monitors, then repeats the process, to produce what the directors consider “a good day’s work”—two seconds of finished film.
The California Film Institute hosted a special screening at the Rafael Theater prior to the film’s local release, which featured a Q&A with the film’s co-directors. Burton and Starzak mounted the stage carrying an aluminum briefcase that turned out to contain the entire cast of the film. Shaun and his friends were passed around to the delight of audience members young and old who were treated to a rare, up close and personal moment with the stars they had just enjoyed onscreen.
I asked if they had to redub the inarticulate mumbling for foreign audiences and they replied that only China made such a request. (They politely declined.)
Four big hoofs up! A shear delight.
Robert Bloomberg is a stereo photographer, filmmaker, musician and graphic artist whose award-winning 3D shows have been presented worldwide, including local showings at The Exploratorium, Mill Valley Film Festival, and Oakland Museum. He has been honored with a lifetime fellowship “For Distinguished Scholarship and Extraordinary Knowledge of Stereoscopy” by the National Stereoscopic Association, and served for many years as its Regional Director for Northern California as well as being Stereo Technical Advisor for the Photographic Society of America. His 2D animated film, Animation Pie won Best Educational Film at the Zagreb International Film Festival and was shown on the BBC. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, Marilyn Freund, and three cats (some of whom are famous). Samples of his work can be seen at www.rgb3d.com.