With pre-Christmas release Paddington still doing Top 10 business – and doing better than anyone would have predicted in the States – we appear to have rediscovered the lost art of exporting satisfying family entertainment to the masses: no 3D, no rote quest narratives, nothing that might obstruct the sincere storytelling traditionally undertaken in bedrooms everywhere before lights-out.
In the case of Aardman’s latest stopmotion Shaun the Sheep Movie, we can extend that list to include “no more than one ‘the’ per title” (curious) and – crucially – “no words”, for what we’re offered here is all but a silent movie, centred on a flock of wordless woolly Gromits. Perhaps only The Artist’s success could have tempted the company to expand its dialogue-free CBeebies fave to feature length, yet the team assembled under directors Richard Starzak and Mark Burton have outdone themselves finding other ways for their characters to communicate.
From the off, it’s clear Shaun is pitching to a younger crowd than the universally loved Nick Park movies, not least as its timid, hungry, murmuring hero is clearly meant as a toddler surrogate. The show’s parameters have, however, been enlarged for the big screen: tempted beyond Mossybottom Farm’s peaceful hedgerows in pursuit of the errant Farmer, Shaun and chums will wind up in “The Big City”, a bewildering landscape for any little lamb, stocked as it is with such terrifying authority figures as relentless animal containment officer Mr. Trumper. (Accompanying adults are permitted to snigger at that one.)
What follows is a succession of meaty set-pieces that speak to hours of brainstorming in the writers’ room and pop with deft visual gags worthy of being paused and reassessed on DVD. (The Aardman staff aren’t just dextrous animators and inventive gagmen; they’re also canny suits who know that stocking their films deep with this kind of extra-narrative material will likely drum up repeat business down the line.)
No po-faced synopsis could do justice to the chaos unleashed by these characters in operating rooms and chi-chi restaurants; one throwaway sequence involving a sheep losing his jumper would make scant sense on the page, but it had me in bits as it unfolded on screen. The film flows appreciably between stop-offs: the opening and closing movements, involving a runaway caravan and a pantomime horse respectively, are mini-masterclasses in that Looney Tunes motion that’s run through Aardman’s work ever since A Close Shave and The Wrong Trousers.
Yet whatever speed they’re going at, these characters bear the traces of well-thumbed personalities. Take the Farmer: a squinting, invariably tatty figure in Vic Reeves specs, he nevertheless comes to serve as a father figure to Shaun in much the way James Cromwell’s Farmer Hoggett did to Babe. There’s a genuine emotional kick when, in the throes of plot-induced amnesia, he shoos his flock from his door; the sheep, bless ‘em, wind up encamped in the Big City’s own Poverty Row, drawing pillows for themselves in the dirt.
That these ovines are all somehow distinctive – no boilerplate animation here – is a keystone of the film’s cheeringly matter-of-fact inclusivity, which extends to female bus drivers, male hairdressers (a major plot point) and a recognition, among the supporting characters, that plasticine comes in many colours. (You could call it the Paddington effect.)
If it all feels effortless, perhaps it is. Set against the groundbreaking Wallace work and the underrated dynamism of Pirates!, the essentially modest STSM finds this company consolidating while playing to an established base; to pick up the agricultural theme, they’ve constructed a slightly bigger barn in a field adjacent to one they’ve already harvested with some success, and the plot – about a hero who just wants his world to return to normal – is just conservative enough to reassure the restless toddler demographic.
Still, you could equally argue The Wrong Trousers was no less geared towards putting the penguin back in his bottle, and at a time when the market for family films is becoming increasingly aggressive – not to mention flooded with flatly contemptuous product – it’s heartening to see this team responding with charm, good humour, and the most expressive sound effects of the year. Aardman are getting so good at the pictures, they no longer have need for words.
(MovieMail, February 2015)
Shaun the Sheep Movie screens tomorrow at 9.10am on BBC2.