Shaun the Sheep Movie


Shaun the Sheep reads the early reviews.

Shaun the Sheep reads the early reviews.

(2015) Animated Feature (Lionsgate) Starring the voices of Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes,  Omid Djalili, Richard Webber, Kate Harbour, Tim Hands, Andy Nyman, Simon Greenall, Emma Tate, Jack Paulson, Sean Connolly, Henry Burton, Dhimant Vyas, Sophie Laughton, Nia Medi James, Stanley Unwin, Nick Park. Directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak

Variety asserts that Shaun the Sheep is comparable to the legendary French comedian Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot and while that is a bit of a stretch, I can at least see where the reviewer is coming from. Certainly Shaun is about as loquacious as the French comedian.

Shaun the Sheep (Fletcher) made his first appearance in a Wallace and Gromit short before getting a series of 7-minute shorts of his own, more than a hundred of them most of which have been broadcast on TV. This is the first full-length feature and it follows the storyline of most of the shorts, to wit Shaun and his fellow sheep try to get out of doing any farm work, having to outwit the dog Bitzer (Sparkes) and the unnamed balding Farmer (Sparkes). The shorts are clever and cute.

This time, however, things get a little out of hand when after lulling the Farmer to sleep by jumping over a fence until he nods off, they store him in what the Brits call a caravan and we call a trailer. When Bitzer gets wind of the deception, he goes to wake up his master, only to send the Caravan on a beeline for the city – London although not specifically named. Upon arrival the farmer is bonked on the head and loses all his memories. Having no ID on him, he wanders the streets, trying to find some sort of clue as to who he is and what he does for a living. He ends up mistakenly figuring out that he’s a hairdresser and uses the clippers to sheer the heads of his celebrity clients, recreating the same sorts of styles he used to give his sheep.

Shaun knows he needs to go retrieve the Farmer so he heads out to the City, only to be followed by the rest of the flock and Bitzer. A super-zealous animal control catcher named Trumper (Djalili) is on the prowl for Shaun and his friends and eventually captures Shaun and Bitzer, imprisoning them in a dog shelter which looks much more like death row. There they meet the world’s ugliest dog who has no hope of being adopted. Their new friend helps them escape and eventually hide out, where Shaun comes up with a last-ditch plan to get their Farmer back home to the farm – and put everything to right.

I have to admit that my hopes weren’t high for this, as it is the first Aardman animation feature in awhile to arrive with little or no fanfare and quite frankly, it may very well be one of the best things the studio has ever done. One thing I’d worried about is that there is absolutely no dialogue – the animals communicate with gesture, look and an occasional bleat or woof. Humans speak in an unintelligible gibberish that puts the “WAH WAH WAH” spoken by the adults in the Peanuts cartoons to shame.

There is obviously a great deal of affection for the rustic way of life; the farmhouse is one of those beautiful old stone farmhouses that dot the English countryside, the meadow is beautiful and even the “work” that is done doesn’t seem all that taxing. The bucolic setting and the obvious affection the sheep feel for the farmer and vice versa is kind of moving. You would think that a farmer who has grown to middle age without a human partner might get unutterably lonely but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

Like most of Aardman’s animations, this is clever as all get out. It certainly seems to be aimed at a very young audience, certainly toddlers on up but unlike a lot of American entertainment aimed at the very young, this is just as easily digested by adult viewers. It’s very short as you might expect (barely over an hour) and not for a moment did I ever feel bored or talked down to. The opening sequence, done as a Super 8 film of the Farmer as a young man with Shaun as a baby and Bitzer as a puppy establishes the mood; it’s a rather sweet sequence and while critics have praised it, some might find it too treacly. Those who don’t like cute movies for kids would be well-advised to move on.

The charm here is undeniable and quite frankly although it doesn’t have the lofty aspirations of Inside Out or the epic setting of Minions this certainly belongs with those two films as the very best family films of the summer. Some families might be unaware of the character or the movie, but this is one I’d highly recommend for an afternoon out at the movies with the kids.

REASONS TO GO: Super charming. Clever like all Aardman films. Good for adults and kids alike.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little over-sentimental in places. Those who don’t like kid movies that are cute will not like this.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Twenty animators worked on the film, each producing about two seconds of footage per day.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Mr. Holmes

Chicken Run


Chicken Run

There's something fowl going on here.

(2000) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Mel Gibson, Julia Sawalha, Miranda Richardson, Jane Horrocks, Imelda Staunton, Timothy Spall, Tony Haygarth, Benjamin Whitrow, Phil Daniels, Lynn Ferguson, John Sharian, Penelope Cruz. Directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park

From the studio that brought the amusing – nay, hysterically funny – “Wallace and Gromit” shorts comes this marvelously charming – and hysterically funny – modern-day retelling of The Great Escape.

Life on Tweedy’s Chicken Farm is bleak, indeed. Hens who don’t lay their daily quota of eggs end up on the chopping block, and eventually on the Tweedy’s dinner table. Ginger (Sawalha), a dare-I-say-it plucky little bird, dreams of better things; a paradise beyond the distant hills. Sadly, her escape plans always seem to go terribly awry, often due to the incompetence of her fellow fowl, and she winds up taking the rap for it and being sentenced to solitary for a few days.

Her fellow chickens are colorful and big-hearted, but don’t have a lot of material above the beak, if you get my drift. Still, they’re all behind her 100% (more or less), starting with the empty-headed, perpetually knitting Babs (Horrocks) to the stiff-upper-lip ex-RAF fryer…I mean, flyer…Fowler (Whitrow) and up to the feisty Bunty (Staunton).

Into the frying pan lands Rocky (Gibson) who flies into the pen quite unexpectedly. He is, as he puts it, the Lone Free Ranger, a true cock of the walk with a devil-may-care charm. In exchange for shelter (he’s on the lam from the circus he used to work in), he agrees to teach the cooped-up chickens how to fly ignoring the rather difficult obstacle that chickens can’t actually fly, aerodynamically speaking.

In the meantime, the bitter and mean-spirited Mrs. Tweedy (Richardson) has determined that egg production just doesn’t generate enough revenue to allow the Tweedys to do more than subsist. The solution is a monstrous chicken pie making machine. It’s simple, she tells her henpecked husband (Haygarth); “Chickens go in, pies come out.” The stalag has suddenly become a death camp.

There is a tremendous amount of wit and good-natured charm. The humor is a bit droll, and may go over the heads of kids that have been spoon-fed Rugrats, Pokémon and other truly wretched and poorly-drawn excuses for animation on the Cartoon Network. Still, the lil’ tykes will go for the panicky, somewhat silly chickens and the outlandish devices that Ginger and her penned-up mates come up with. Mel Gibson makes for a charming rogue. He’s carefree, cocky even but in the end he has a gizzard of pure gold.

Peter Lord and Nick Park, who produced, wrote, and directed Chicken Run, have a marvelous style. You get the distinct impression that these fellers both believe that their audience has at least half a brain cell in between them. They poke fun at British middle class life, while at the same time showing a genuine affection for it. This was the first animated feature from Aardman Studios and it set the bar pretty high, which they have since equaled and occasionally exceeded.

Some of the reference and the sometimes difficult to understand accents may go right over the heads of audiences (especially the tots) but most of the humor is universal. I found myself grinning maniacally throughout and Da Queen remarked at how cute she found the chickens. This is a winner, folks. Kids may find the flick’s Britishness a bit hard to fathom, but they’ll muddle through. I like this one far better than a lot of the animated features that flood the market in the second decade of the 21st century and I think that you will, too.

WHY RENT THIS: Clever and well-animated (even if you don’t like Claymation).

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might be a little bit too British for American audiences, particularly for the younger set.

FAMILY MATTERS: Perfect for all audiences

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rocky and Ginger are named for the childhood chicken pets of co-director Nick Park.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a read-along version for younger viewers, as well as a fascinating featurette on the Claymation process itself.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $224.8M on a $45M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Hey Hey, It’s Esther Blueburger