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Directors: Mark Burton & Richard Starzak
Release Date:
January 24, 2015
Stars: Shaun the Sheep
Rating:
★★★★★

Thank God for the LAIKA and Aardman Studios, which, in a time of cliché-ridden computer animated films, devote their time to the ancient art of stop-motion, and who dare to tell stories that are less trope-rich than most contemporary mainstream animation films. Of this the ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ is an excellent example.

Shaun the Sheep made his debut in the Wallace and Gromit film ‘A Close Shave’ from 1995. From 2007 on the little sheep stars his own television series. In this series Shaun gets his own world: he’s part of a flock, owned by a nameless farmer and guarded by a partly anthropomorphized sheepdog called Bitzer. The series is rather unique in the present television animation world for both being completely animated in stop-motion, and being completely devoid of dialogue.

The first feature length movie about Shaun the Sheep features all the main protagonists from the series, and retains the lack of dialogue, a tour de force in a feature length film, rarely done before (an obvious example is ‘Les triplettes de Belleville’ from 2002). When taking Shaun the Sheep from the small television screen to the big screen of movie theaters, the studio also took the little sheep and his co-stars out of their comfortable little barnyard world and into the big city (consequently called ‘Big City’). This not only meant completely new plot possibilities, but also a multitude of very elaborate sets, full of props, which never seize to amaze in their grand scale, and richness of detail.

The plot starts when Shaun decides to have a day off. He manages to lull the farmer into sleep inside a caravan, and takes over possession of the farmer’s house. Unfortunately, the caravan plunges downhill, out of the farmer’s terrain, and into the big city. Bitzer immediately recognizes the danger, but Shaun, free at last, is a slower learner. Only when he realizes the sheep will soon run out of food, he comes into action, and follows both the farmer and Bitzer into town.

Matters get extra complicated when his flock follows him, when they encounter an animal catcher called A. Trumper, and when the farmer gets hit by a traffic light bulb, making him losing his memory. Luckily, the gang meets an ugly, but very friendly orphan mongrel called Slip (although her name is never revealed during the film), which helps them throughout the movie.

The film is full of delightful scenes, and despite Shaun’s slightly moralistic story arc (which can be summarized as ‘be careful what you wish for’ and ‘appreciate what you’ve got’), it’s clear that humor has a number one seat. Especially delightful are Bitzer’s scene at an operation room, the flock of sheep, poorly disguised as humans, dining in a fancy restaurant, and the animal prison scenes, complete with references to ‘Night of the Hunter’ (1953) and ‘Silence of the Lambs’ (1991, especially cleared for the occasion by Warner Bros.).

The movie isn’t entirely devoid of tropes, however. There’s the typical ‘all hope is lost’ scene, but even in this scene the gang stays together. There’s no conflict between the main protagonist and his friends, unlike many contemporary films (e.g. ‘Up’ (2009), ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2’ (2013), and ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ from 2016), a welcome diversion to this almost obligatory scene.

Another trope is that of the almost invincible villain (see also e.g. ‘Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted’ from 2012), played out by Trumper, who even follows the gang home in order to destroy them. Nevertheless, the story is original enough to surprise and to entertain throughout. It’s also admirable how the makers managed to even give the hapless farmer his own subplot.

The lack of dialogue means that all emotions have to be acted out solely with gestures and facial expressions. In this respect, the animators do an excellent job. There’s especially a lot of subtle emotion in the eyes, and there’s plenty of animation depicting the characters’ inner thinking. This is animation art at its peak. This, in combination with the stunning handicraft depicted in every scene, makes ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ a stand-out in the present animation film era. The film may be targeted to children, it’s absolutely a delight for the whole family, with something entertaining for everyone. Highly recommended.

Watch the trailer for ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Nick Park
Release Date:
December 24, 1995
Stars: Wallace & Gromit, Shaun the Sheep
Rating:
★★★½

Like the ground-breaking ‘The Wrong Trousers‘, ‘A Close Shave’ has a mystery plot featuring an evil genius framing Gromit. This time the premise is a wool shortage.

Wallace and Gromit are window cleaners, accidentally harboring an escaped sheep, and later meeting the villain, a bulldog called Preston, themselves. Things get complicated when Wallace gets romantically involved with Preston’s owner, wool shop owner Wendolene Ramsbottom, and Preston turns Wallace’s knit-o-matic into a killer machine, turning sheep into dog food.

As with ‘The Wrong Trousers’ the film knows a spectacular finale, first with an exciting car chase (also involving a little plane), and then in Preston’s dog food factory. As with the earlier film the suggestion of speed is flawless, and one forgets immediately that the original clay puppets didn’t move at all. The animation and the elaborate sets are even more spectacular than in the earlier film.

And yet, ‘A Close Shave’ is less gripping than ‘The Wrong Trousers’ was. The plot is more predictable, the car chase more conventional, and Preston less creepy than the penguin was in the earlier film, despite being indestructible in a rather Terminator-like manner. It’s a pity Nick Park and his team didn’t come with a more different plot, because now ‘A Close Shave’ demands too much comparison to the earlier film.

Nevertheless, the film is very important in Aardman history, for it introduces Shaun the Sheep, since 2007 hero of his own series, and star of no less than two feature length films. Already in his first short the little sheep shows to be a brave and inventive little fellow, and he literally has the last laugh.

Watch the opening of ‘A Close Shave’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘A Close Shave’ is available on the DVD ‘Wallace & Gromit – The Complete Collection’

Director: Phil Mulloy
Release Date: 1995
Rating: ★★

‘Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness’ tells about farmer Nathan and his wife Emmylou, who have been married since they were eighteen, but who are secretly dreaming of another life.

It’s a bit unclear what the subject of ‘Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness’ has to do with this particular commandment, and the film feels rather pointless, resulting in possible the weakest of Mulloy’s The Ten Commandment films.

Like most of the other Ten Commandments episodes the short is narrated by Joel Cutrara and takes place in Joesville.

‘Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness’ is available on the BFI DVD ‘Phil Mulloy – Extreme Animation’

Director: Phil Mulloy
Release Date:
1995
Rating:
★★

‘Honour Thy Father and Thy Mother’ is the fourth entry in Phil Mulloy’s puzzling Ten Commandments series.

This short tells the story of Little Tucker, who is forced by his parents to run a county race, only to arrive last. This film takes place full of oil fields, and Mulloy not only uses his characteristic stark black and whites, but also some bright reds and yellows for a fire.

The short, narrated by Joel Cutrara, is rather simple and straightforward, and doesn’t really deliver its promise. Nevertheless, it contains a nice jazzy score by Dave King.

‘Honour Thy Father and Thy Mother’ is available on the BFI DVD ‘Phil Mulloy – Extreme Animation’

Director: Phil Mulloy
Release Date:
1995
Rating:
★★★

‘Remember to Keep the Holy Sabbath Day’ is the most absurd and arguably the funniest of Phil Mulloy’s ‘The Ten Commandments’ films.

The short tells the strange (and rather silly) tale of Ezechiel Mittenbender, a citizen of Joesville, Mulloys mythical town, which he had introduced in ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal‘. When Ezechiel witnesses the landing of a flying teacup, he gets abducted by evil aliens called Zogs. The Zogs want to destroy the earth, but Ezechiel saves the day by reminding the Zogs that it’s Sunday…

The Zogs have genitalia where our heads would have been and vice versa. Mulloy clearly delighted in these creatures, because they would return in his ‘Intolerance’ double bill of 2000/2001.

‘Remember to Keep the Holy Sabbath Day’ is available on the BFI DVD ‘Phil Mulloy – Extreme Animation’

Director: Phil Mulloy
Release Date:
1995
Rating:
★★½

‘Thou Shalt Not Commit Blasphemy’ is Phil Mulloy’s personal take on the Noah story. The result is a rather puzzling film with an unclear message.

The story tells about a man who steals a cross from a church and replaces it with a toy boat. He’s caught by his fellow villagers, and condemned to death by being burnt at a stake. But God intervenes, causing a flood, only rescuing the man and his family.

Unlike most of the Ten Commandments films ‘Thou Shalt Not Commit Blasphemy’ does not feature a voice over, but contains a little dialogue instead, in sped-up voice tracks. Like ‘Thou Shalt Not Adore False Gods‘ and ‘Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness‘ this short features an active and visible God. But Mulloy’s depiction of God is pretty blasphemous by all means…

‘Thou Shalt Not Commit Blasphemy’ is available on the BFI DVD ‘Phil Mulloy – Extreme Animation’

Director: Phil Mulloy
Release Date: 1995
Rating: ★★½

‘Thou Shalt Not Adore False Gods’ is number one of Phil Mulloy’s Ten Commandments films, even though it was not the first one made. This episode has a particularly bizarre story that makes little sense.

The short features one of Mulloy’s standard cowboys, who’s robbed by a burglar, and tied to chair in front of his piano. No-one ever releases him, but over the years he learns to play the piano with his nose.

Unlike most of the Ten Commandment films this short contains neither a voice over nor dialogue, apart from a few short cries. God himself is visible in this cartoon, being portrayed as a selfish and vain creature.

‘Thou Shalt Not Adore False Gods’ is available on the BFI DVD ‘Phil Mulloy – Extreme Animation’

Director: Bob Godfrey
Release Date: 1995
Rating: ★★ ★ ★
Review:

‘Know Your Europeans, UK’ is apparently the only entry in what should have been a series about all nations within the European Union, showcasing the best animation of each country.

The British entry, of course, tells about the UK and its inhabitants, and Bob Godfrey and his team make the introduction to their country a particularly tongue-in-cheek affair. The film is more or less presented by (a caricature of) Prince Charles of Wales, and features a silly song (sung e.g. by the director himself, and penned to music by Sir Arthur Sullivan) and equally silly images in a rapid succession.

The short deals with British habits, British celebrities and the British weather, and is rendered in jolly pencil and cel animation. ‘Know Your Europeans, UK’ may be on the light side, it’s all in good fun.

Watch ‘Know Your Europeans, UK’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Know Your Europeans, UK’ is available on the DVD accompanying the book ‘Halas & Batchelor Cartoons’

Director: Steven Weston
Release Date: 1995
Rating: ★
Review:

‘The Wrong Brothers’ features two brothers who attempt to fly all their lives. In fact, we watch four attempts at different ages.

Now, this may sound like a good and fun idea, but the execution is terrible. The whole film has a very ugly design, very dated computer animation, very bad timing, a very unappealing sound design. Add and an all too predictable ending, and the result is a film that unfortunately can best be forgotten.

‘The Wrong Brothers’ is available on the DVD ‘The Best of British Animation Awards 1’

Director: Ian Sachs
Release Date: 1995
Rating: ★
Review:

‘Scat, the Stringalong Cat’ is a short children’s film clearly inspired by Osvaldo Cavandoli’s great La Linea series.

Like La Linea ‘Scat, the Stringalong Cat’ takes place on a single line in a monochrome background (this time blue). However, unlike La Linea, Scat consists partly of body parts not belonging to the line. Scat has visible eyes, red nose and whiskers that are completely his own.

In this film Scat goes fishing, but he only manages to catch boots.

The 2D computer animation is mediocre, and Sachs’s timing is terrible, with as a result that all his attempts at gags fall flat. What certainly doesn’t help is the ugly electronic soundtrack. In short, ‘Scat, the Stringalong Cat’ fails completely, where La Linea succeeds: in making us laugh.

‘Scat, the Stringalong Cat’ is available on the DVD ‘The Best of British Animation Awards 1’

Director: Erica Russell
Release Date: 1994
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Six years after ‘Feet of Song‘ Erica Russell returned with another extraordinarily beautiful dance film, this time using three dancers in a triangular relationship.

During most of the dance two women compete for a man, and the film features several dances between the man and either one of the women, the two women together, and, in the end, all three together.

The fluency of the movement combined with the elegance of Russell’s paintwork make the film a delight to watch. During most of the film the three dancers remain recognizable as human forms, but at times they change into almost abstract forms, with a strong Bauhaus influence.

Despite the high level of abstraction ‘Triangle’ is a very sensual film, and one never loses the idea that the film is about three characters with solid bodies, no matter how sketchily drawn. Charlie Hart’s score fits the images very well with its quasi-African touch to it.

Watch ‘Triangle’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Triangle’ is available on the DVD ‘The Best of British Animation Awards 1’

Directors: Darren Doherty & Nick Smith
Release Date: 1994
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

In ‘The Wooden Leg’ a girl is born with only one leg. One day she gets a wooden leg for Christmas, but the leg has a will of its own…

‘The Wooden Leg’ is an animation film made directly on film (apparently using a wooden twig) with a wooden twig and ink on white paper, with the images reversed later from black on white to white on black (many thanks to Darren Doherty for clarifying the method below!). Thus it features very simple, but surprisingly effective designs, all consisting of white lines on a black canvas. Yet, Doherty & Smith manage to put a lot of emotion in their simply drawn characters. Despite the rather dark subject matter, the film retains a lighthearted feel and stays with the girl and her special bond with the leg. The animation is accompanied by an effective piano score by Mike Taylor.

Watch ‘The Wooden Leg’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Wooden Leg’ is available on the DVD ‘The Best of British Animation Awards 1’

Director: Brian Wood
Release Date: 1994
Rating: ★★★
Review:

‘Mr Jessop’ tells the simple story of a man who goes to town to buy some perfume for his wife, who stays home, frantically cleaning.

This plot may not sound too interesting, but Brian Wood’s way of telling this story certainly is. In his vision even this every day action is depicted so uniquely that it becomes something completely different. In his world everybody is obsessed with looking, continuously watching each other and the products on the shelves.

The film has a very nervous atmosphere, greatly helped by the soundtrack, and at points reaches an atmosphere of pure paranoia. The animation itself too is nervous, with expressionistic images, lots of deformations, tunnel-perspectives and animated backgrounds. Wood’s drawing style is crude and expressionistic, even if it retains a certain cartoony quality. And even though the ending feels like a punchline, it’s Wood’s unusual, frantic style that stays in your head after watching the short little film.

Watch ‘Mr Jessop’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Mr Jessop’ is available on the DVD ‘The Best of British Animation Awards 1’

Director: Petra Freeman
Release Date: 1994
Rating: ★★½
Review:

‘Jumping Joan’ is a dreamlike short about a girl who seems able to jump inside and outside reality.

The narrative is set around a house in the countryside, next to a forest and a river. Petra Freedman’s images are poetic and intriguing, but also very vague and incomprehensible. If there’s a story to this film I couldn’t detect it. What remains are the soft painted images of the girl moving through a garden and other-wordly places, meeting spirits of the earth, the wood and the sky, or so it seems.

The film turns particularly puzzling when the little girl drops two bunny-like creatures from under her skirt, which dance with a blue spirit, living inside a hollow tree, while the girl seems to change into some electrical firework(?) What this all might mean, remains an utter mystery to me.

Petra Freeman’s drawing style is soft, and a little spiritual. Her animation style is a bit slow, but very imaginative, and she uses a fair amount of metamorphosis to tell her story. The film is dominated by earthly reds and blacks, and the dreamlike atmosphere is greatly enhanced by the sound design, which uses strange sounds, and very little music.

Watch ‘Jumping Joan’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Jumping Joan’ is available on the DVD ‘The Best of British Animation Awards 1’

Director: Jonathan Hodgson
Release Date: 1994
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

This hilarious little film features the most outlandish bedtime story ever put to screen.

A father starts to tell this story when his disobedient son starts hitting him with a mallet. Unusually for an animation film, the spoken tale is by far the main attraction of the film, as it winds in unpredictable directions, far from the realms of the ordinary fairy tale. But Jonathan Hodgson keeps the images interesting, as they illustrate the story, sometimes vaguely, sometimes very directly. Thus we watch the father and his son wandering on Mars, driving, in a forest and on a stage.

The film’s atmosphere is wonderfully surreal, greatly enhanced by dreamlike lighting and great timing on the otherwise rather simple, but definitely effective puppet animation. ‘Hilary’ may not have gained the fame of a ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas‘ or ‘The Wrong Trousers‘, it still is one of the most enjoyable stop-motion films of the nineties.

Watch ‘Hilary’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Hilary’ is available on the DVD ‘The Best of British Animation Awards 1’ and on The Animation Show of Shows Box Set I

Director: Philip Hunt
Release Date: 1994
Rating: ★★
Review:

‘Ah Pook is Here’ is a short but rather pretentious film using texts by avant-garde writer William S. Burroughs on the atomic bomb.

Read by William S. Burroughs himself from the book of the same name, the film mixes computer animation and stop motion to vaguely illustrate Burrough’s texts. The film is set on a small black planet, enircled by Gods, who look like satellites and bombs. Ah Pook is the destroyer, a.k.a. the atomic bomb. On the planet lives a red-headed alien who asks another flying alien about the nature of man, the nature of death and of democracy.

Unfortunately, the images are pretty irrelevant to the text: they neither illustrate nor counter it. Moreover, Burroughs’s text is pretty disjointed itself, making this short animation film remarkably aimless. For this reason ‘Ah Pook is Here’ must be regarded a cinematic failure, despite the virtuoso mix of computer animation and stop motion.

Watch ‘Ah Pook is Here’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Ah Pook is Here’ is available on the DVD ‘The Best of British Animation Awards 1’

Director: Phil Mulloy
Release Date: 1994
Rating: ★★★

‘The Invention of Writing (and Its Destruction)’ is the second of only three films in Phil Mulloy’s ‘The History of the World’-series, which apparently should have existed of 140 different shorts.

Like ‘The Discovery of Language‘ this is a film about sex. The short uses the same white characters as ‘The Discovery of Language’, and takes place in 2,000 years B.C. The short tells about a man who doesn’t manage to get sex, because he’s beaten again and again by other men.

Then the man uses his own penis as a pen, writing ‘The penis (pen is) mightier than the sword’. The invention of writing earns him a multitude of women to have sex with, but it won’t last.

Like ‘The Discovery of Language’ ‘The Invention of Writing (and Its Destruction)’ is essentially a silent film, with intertitles. Mulloy’s animation is simple and crude, and makes effective use of cut-out techniques. The result is a strange mix of sex, violence and absurd humor.

Watch ‘The Invention of Writing (and Its Destruction)’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Invention of Writing (and Its Destruction)’ is available on the BFI DVD ‘Phil Mulloy – Extreme Animation’

Director: Phil Mulloy
Release Date: 1994
Rating: ★★★

‘The Discovery of Language’ is ‘episode 10’ of Phil Mulloy’s ‘The History of the World’, which in real life only consists of three films, of which this one is the first.

The film series uses Mulloy’s typical crude black and white style, enhanced by reds to depict blood. But unlike his other films, his characters are not black blots of inks, but white.

The short tells about a primitive tribe of women, 1,000,000 b.c. who discover letters in the soil, which together form the word ‘vagina’. As soon as they realize the meaning of the word they create their own Fall of Man, covering their crotches with skirts, and forbidding masturbation. Meanwhile, the men are on a similar quest to form the word ‘Penis’, but they are too stupid to fulfill the task.

The crude humor of this short is enhanced greatly by the effective soundtrack, featuring excellent music by Alex Balanescu.

Watch ‘The Discovery of Language’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Discovery of Language’ is available on the BFI DVD ‘Phil Mulloy – Extreme Animation’

Director: Phil Mulloy
Release Date: 1994
Rating: ★★

‘Thou Shalt Not Steal’ is the most critical of Mulloy’s ‘Ten Commandment’ films.

This short tells about Hank, an honest worker in ‘Joesville, at the wrong side of the Mississippi’. Hank works at a building site, and all his colleagues are stealing stuff (in a rather absurd sequence of images), but he won’t.

When crisis hits Joesville, Hank ends on the street, while all his colleagues mysteriously have built homes for themselves…

The town of Joesville would return in the episodes ‘Remember to Keep the Holy Sabbath Day‘ and ‘Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness

‘Thou Shalt Not Steal’ is available on the BFI DVD ‘Phil Mulloy – Extreme Animation’

Director: Phil Mulloy
Release Date: 1994
Rating:

‘Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery’ is the fourth of Phil Mulloy’s ‘The Ten Commandments films’. This short tells about two astronauts, Tex an Mary Lou, who have feelings for each other, which they don’t express, because of their questionable marriages on earth.

This seems like a more critical episode than ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill‘, but Mulloy spoils it by an absurd postlude involving flies.

The black and white ink drawings are enriched by bright yellows and reds to depict flames of desire

‘Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery’ is available on the BFI DVD ‘Phil Mulloy – Extreme Animation’

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