Friday, August 7, 2015

Shaun the Sheep: Woolly bully!

Shaun the Sheep (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Needlessly rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.7.15

I’ve eagerly awaited this film since it was announced in early 2013, and it lives up to every expectation.

Cute, clever, whimsical, laugh-out-loud funny and even socially conscious. Couldn’t ask for more.

With a vengeful animal control officer hot on their heels, our heroes — from left, Shaun,
Slip and Bitzer — make a break for freedom. But that still leaves the bigger problem:
where to find the kindly farmer who is similarly lost in the big city?
Shaun the Sheep comes from the claymation wizards at England’s Aardman Animation, best known for Wallace & Gromit’s various adventures. Indeed, Shaun was introduced in 1995’s Academy Award-winning W&G short, A Close Shave, where character actor Peter Sallis (the longtime voice of Wallace) punningly pronounced the name as “Shorn.”

Shaun was granted his own British TV series in early 2007, but he didn’t travel to this side of the pond for a few more years. (Our household became early fans, thanks to a friend and some, ah, illicit Internet activity.) Shaun is much better known on these shores today, thanks to the perceptive folks at the Disney Channel.

Heavens, the impish little sheep even maintains an active social media presence, and has more than 5 million Facebook friends. Not ba-a-a-a-ad at all...

Ironically, Shaun may be overtaking Wallace & Gromit in terms of popularity, having thus far starred in 166 seven-minute shorts (assuming my count is correct). And therein lay the potential concern, for Shaun fans throughout the world: Could that brief, dialog-free format — so perfect in every respect — translate successfully to an 85-minute big-screen feature?

Worry not. The transition has been seamless.

Aside from its entertainment value, this feature-length “Shaun” is impressive in several other respects. The engaging storyline unfolds without any dialog; even when human characters converse, it’s solely in (deliberately amusing) unintelligible mumbles. And yet the plot is always comprehensible, with solid character development and all sorts of droll sidebar mischief. (The overly precocious Shaun, with a tendency to leap into half-baked schemes, always gets into trouble.)

The result, then, is a de facto silent movie, albeit one with marvelous sound effects and a superlative score from composer Ilan Eshkeri. He has managed a herculean feat, because the music essentially never stops. Much the way Howard Shore orchestrated full-blown symphonies for his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit scores, Eshkeri has produced a similarly ambitious musical portrait that augments, counterpoints and even carries the action, from scene to scene.

And yes, folks, you’ll detect underscore snatches of Shaun’s theme song, most famously sung by Vic Reeves, in its original pop hoe-down format. My only complaint is that this film never employs that foot-stompin’ version of the song, instead scrolling the closing credits to an updated, rap-inflected version by the pop duo Rizzle Kicks. (It’s cute, but it ain’t the same. So sue me.)

But I digress.

After a short prologue that details how Shaun (as a little lamb) came to live at the bucolic Mossy Bottom Farm, the story proper establishes the daily routine that consumes the lives of Shaun, his flock mates, dutiful guard dog Bitzer, and the never-named Farmer who watches over them.

Over time, the Farmer’s meticulous list of chores wears on Shaun, who craves a day off and concocts an elaborate scheme to trick his human companion into snoozing far longer than usual. Alas, the plan goes awry and — as a result of a trailer crisis too comically absurd to explain here — the Farmer winds up hospitalized in the nearby Big City, having lost his memory after a clonk on the noggin.

Loyal Bitzer follows his master, doggedly watching the appropriate hospital window (canines not being allowed inside, of course). Back at the farm, realizing his responsibility for this mess — and wanting to fix things — Shaun and the rest of the flock embark on a well-intentioned but ill-conceived rescue mission.

Naturally, everything goes wrong. What else would you expect, from a title character with the overly imaginative sensibilities and immaturity of a 12-year-old boy?

Directors/co-scripters Mark Burton and Richard Starzak display a well-honed sense of whimsy, not to mention excellent comic timing: an impressive feat, when you consider the difficulty of achieving expressive, split-second “reaction shots” from manually manipulated clay figures. (Some numbers, for people who appreciate such things: 157 6.5-inch human figures; 197 sheep puppets, including 27 for Shaun alone; and 58 cameras employed to shoot the action in 33 different production units.)

Burton and Starzak orchestrate everything brilliantly, with editor Sim Evan-Jones contributing the hilariously precise slow takes that marked the finest Chuck Jones Warner Bros. cartoons.

Every Aardman drama boasts a vile and despicable villain, in this case a baleful, burly, square-jawed animal-control officer dubbed Trumper, who lives to capture unleashed, unlicensed and unlawfully stray critters. Trumper doesn’t merely capture such beasts; he “contains” them, cackling cheerfully every time he tosses a fresh catch into the clink.

And although Trumper ostensibly works for the local animal shelter, he has no interest in seeing his victims adopted out. Nor is he choosy; he’s just as willing to stock the cages with turtles, goldfish and, yes, sheep. (Wait till you see the Hannibal Lecter-esque cat.)

The primary cast expands further to include Slip, an adorably ugly stray dog that Shaun meets after a less than ideal encounter with Trumper. Slip serves as the plucky but pitiful “woeful orphan” to Shaun’s Chaplin-esque Little Tramp, and the two become an engaging team.

Most of the rest of the sheep don’t have names, with the exception of infant lamb Timmy, whose inquisitive, wide-eyed antics forever derail some of Shaun’s carefully plotted schemes. The other woolly stand-out is the massive Shirley, whose girth results from constant eating, and whose size invariably creates fresh problems, when she gets stuck in something.

Ah, yes; we also mustn’t forget the Naughty Pigs, a porcine Mossy Bottom trio who love to heckle and torment Shaun and the rest of the sheep.

Everybody gets a piece of the action, as Burton and Starzak build their droll narrative to a suspenseful climax. The action is so seamless, so cleverly constructed, that you won’t even notice the absence of dialog. Consider how deftly The Artist conveyed its storyline; I’m also reminded of 2003’s hilariously frenzied animated charmer, The Triplets of Belleville, wherein writer/director Sylvain Chomet achieved the identically impressive feat of telling a rather complicated story without any expository chatter.

Burton and Starzak clearly borrowed from the best; longtime film fans will detect sight gags that feel like Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton, and — according to the press notes — that isn’t accidental.

“Comic genius” is the only suitable phrase, and the saucer-eyed Shaun is ample evidence. Aardman has the touch, and — as this film amply demonstrates — Wallace & Gromit creator Nick Park isn’t the only animation maestro in the studio stable. Burton and Starzak are an equally impressive team.

As often is true of Aardman productions on this side of the Atlantic, Shaun’s big-screen adventure has arrived with only modest fanfare, and his typically Brit-wit escapades may be overshadowed by Meryl Streep’s Ricki Rendazzo and yet another Marvel Comics superhero adventure (The Fantastic Four), both of which are guaranteed to dominate screens and media hype this weekend.

More’s the pity. I’ve often said, in recent years, that many of the best scripts keep popping up in animated films: a belief that Shaun the Sheep verifies anew.

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