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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: Richard Goleszowski
Release Date: 1989
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Ident © Aardman‘Ident’ is a surrealistic film about how we change our identity over the course of a day according to the people we meet.

The film uses highly original and very stylized designs, and jabbering dialogue to an alienating effect. Its claustrophobic labyrinth setting alone is unsettling. The film is not heavy-weighted, however, but keeps a light sense of humor. It also features a flat dog that was to become the direct ancestor of Rex the Runt.

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

‘Ident’ is available on the DVD ‘Aardman Classics’

Director: ?
Release Date: 1987
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

My Baby Just Cares For Me © Aardman‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ was Aardman Studio’s second video clip, after ‘Sledgehammer’ for Peter Gabriel (1986).

‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’  is not quite as elaborate, however. It’s a sweet little video in mostly black and white. It’s set to Nina Simone’s 1958 recording of the song, which was reissued in 1987 after being used in a successful commercial for Chanel No.5.

The clip features cat characters, including a black female cat singer, and a white cat who’s in love with her. It also features some live action footage showing details of a piano, brushes on a snare drum, and a double bass.

The smoky nightclub atmosphere is captured very well, and the animation, joyful if a little crude, matches the song perfectly. The result is one of the most enjoyable little stop motion films of the 1980s.

Watch ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ is available on the DVD ‘Aardman Classics’

Director: Peter Lord & David Sproxton
Release Date: 1986
Rating: ★★
Review:

Babylon © Aardman‘Babylon’ is an early Aardman film criticizing weapon trade. Unfortunately, despite its sympathetic message, it’s not a successful film.

In it we watch a meeting of weapon dealers. During this gathering one of the guests, a bald Russian-looking guy, is growing in statue to a gargantuan size until it explodes into a flood of blood, destroying all the other guests.

‘Babylon’  impresses with its many detailed human-like plasticine puppets, its virtuoso stop motion animation and its elaborate set. But it suffers from slowness, ugly sound design and a very bad soundtrack, involving an all too long speech by the chairman of the weapon dealers. The end result is too tiresome and too vague to impress.

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

‘Babylon’ is available on the DVD ‘Aardman Classics’

Director: Peter Lord & David Sproxton
Release Date: 1978
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Down & Out © Aardman‘Down & out’ is the first film in Aardman’s ‘animated conversations’ series and the British studio’s first masterpiece.

The very idea of using dialogue from real life is revolutionary enough, but to use it for clay animation with lip-synch is a masterstroke. Moreover, the animation of the plasticine figures is startling: it lacks the exaggerations of normal animation, but uses small gestures and real movements, like scratching one’s nose or belly, instead. The animation continues realistically even when not supported by the soundtrack. The result is uncannily realistic, making the drama of an old, confused man asking for food and shelter, but being turned down at an Salvation army office, extra tragic.

With this film Aardman single-handedly invented the ‘animated documentary’, a genre which would lead to fantastic films like ‘Ryan’ and ‘Waltz with Bashir’ in the 2000s.

‘Down & Out’ is available on the DVD ‘Aardman Classics’

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