Read two critical perspectives on Shaun the Sheep Movie (Mark Burton, Richard Starzak; 2015), by Robert Bloomberg and Nancy Denney-Phelps. Shaun the Sheep Movie is now playing at theaters nationwide. Continue reading
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.
by Nancy Phelps
Britain’s Aardman Animation Studio is back on the big screen in the United States doing what it does best, providing pure entertainment in flawless claymation. The 85-minute Shaun the Sheep Movie, written and directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak, brings Shaun and his fellow sheep to the big screen along with all of the usual suspects from the BBC television series.
The film opens with Shaun deciding that he wants to take a day off from the boring routine of barnyard life at Mossy Bottom Farm, but first he has to devise a plan to put The Farmer to sleep. Shaun’s plan works much better than expected when the trailer that The Farmer falls asleep in breaks loose from its moorings on a steep hillside and the sleeping Farmer, the farmer’s long-suffering dog, Bitzer, and Shaun find themselves in the big city. Shaun is accompanied on the adventure by Shirley, the largest sheep in the flock; Baby Timmy, who is Shaun’s cousin; Timmy’s Mother, whose pink hair curlers and topknot are ever-present, and the rest of the flock.
When Shaun made his first appearance in Wallace and Gromit: A Close Shave in 1995, he became an instant hit with audiences. In 2007, Shaun and all of the other farm residents created by four-time Oscar winner Nick Park, became regulars on their own 15-minute television show. Unlike many TV series that are transferred to the big screen, Shaun the Sheep Movie loses none of its zest, with lots of slapstick comedy and classic chase scenes. Like the small screen version, the film doesn’t have any dialogue, but it is full of expressive animal sounds that are particularly funny—especially in the restaurant scene where the sheep disguise themselves in thrift shop clothes and try to look “normal” to evade the animal control officer who is chasing them.
The lively musical score is written by Ilan Eshken who has composed music for numerous British movies, as well as the 2012 BBC animated Christmas special The Snowman and the Snowdog. The music keeps pace with the action, especially in the old style Keystone Cops chase scenes.
When you take the kids to see Shaun the Sheep Movie, be prepared to enjoy the film as much as they do, because this is a film for the entire family. Aardman Animation likes to add a special gag or two at the end of their films, so be sure not to leave until all of the credits have rolled, or you will miss some delightful surprises.
Aardman Animation was cofounded in 1972 by Peter Lord and David Sproxton. Most people are familiar with the Bristol, England-based studio as the creators of Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run, and most recently The Pirates!, but the studio is equally committed to raising money for charity through their Wallace and Gromit Charity Foundation, which aims to improve the quality of life for children in hospitals and hospices.
Peter Lord and I were both guests at the Euganea Film Festival in Este, Italy recently, and he told me that Shaun has been spotted all over London this spring on the Shaun in the City trail. There are 50 giant Plexiglas Shaun statues decorated by prominent artists, designers, and celebrities. Also, 70 different Shauns can be found by following the Shaun the Sheep trail in Bristol. On October 8, all 120 of the Shaun statues will go on the auction block. Money raised from the sale of the 50 sculptures on the London trail will benefit hospitals and hospices throughout the United Kingdom, and funds generated by the 70 Shauns around Bristol will go to The Grand Appeal, The Bristol Childrens Hospital, and the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at St. Michaels Hospital.
Peter and Aardman Animation have every reason to be proud of the work the Wallace and Gromit Charity does. The Gromit Unleashed project placed 80 differently-decorated fiberglass Gromits throughout Bristol in 2013, and the sale of the statues raised 5 million pounds (over 7 million dollars) at auction for the Bristol Children’s Hospital.
If you or your company are interested in having your very own unique Shaun the Sheep statue, you can register online and bid from anywhere in the world during the auction on October 8. Even if you are not bidding, you can join in the fun by watching the auction, which will be streamed live on the 8th at shauninthecity.org.uk.
Nancy Denney-Phelps is a journalist writing about European animation and festivals as well as a producer of music for animation. Along with her composer/musician husband Nik Phelps, she co-founded the Sprocket Ensemble, dedicated to presenting live performances of original music with screenings of contemporary animation from around the world.
Nancy’s writings have appeared in such publications as Cartoon and Animatoon as well as on her regular blog for AWN (Animation World Network). She is also a regular correspondent for ASIFA/San Francisco and a member of the ASIFA International Board of Directors.
Nancy has served on numerous International Animation Festival juries and taught time management for animators at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts, School of Art and Design. Her strong interest in the history of animation has led her to present programs on the history of animation traced through music at many animation festivals and conferences worldwide. She also works as advisor to several animation festivals.