Aardman presents a modern silent comedy about some mischievous sheep and their adventures in the city. It has music and sound effects but no dialogue and that’s good enough for me to review this brilliant family film.
The story of Shaun the Sheep begins two decades back. Shaun made his first appearance as a supporting character in the 1995 Wallace & Gromit short A Close Shave. He was just a little sheep who was shorn (shorn, Shaun, get it?) too closely by mistake but he was popular enough to warrant a spinoff and this is where things get interesting for silent film fans.
Shaun became the star of a television series (called, shockingly enough, Shaun the Sheep). Show creator Richard Starzak (previously credited as Richard Goleszowski) decided from the very beginning that Shaun would be a dialogue-free character in a dialogue-free world. At first, the goal was to save time and money that would have been spent synching lip movements to voice acting but creating silent comedy proved to be far more challenging than it looked at first. No corners could be cut and writers could not fall back on verbal quips to save a flat scene.
Undeterred, Starzak stated that they stuck Buster Keaton’s picture to the studio floor for inspiration and got to work. While Shaun is officially a spiritual descendent of Keaton, there is also quite a bit of Harold Lloyd’s optimistic go-getter in him as well. Some touches of Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati complete the picture. (Everyone who writes about this film seems obsessed with comparing it to Tati, often ignoring Keaton and the other silent comedians altogether. There are some similarities but whose face is on the studio floor, hmm?)
Shaun the Sheep’s television show proved to be a massive global hit. The dialogue-free format meant that it was easily broadcast in countries with few English speakers and the clever sight gags kept audiences wanting more. And more they got when it was announced that Shaun was getting his very own movie just in time for the twentieth anniversary of his debut.
Starzak wanted a silent Shaun but the folks at Aardman weren’t so sure. They suggested hedging their bets with a new character who would provide explanatory dialogue. In the end, though, Starzak won and Shaun remained silent except for synchronized sound effects, including assorted baaas and bleats.
Some people still don’t get it. In fact, one article even states that “Shaun the Sheep is not a silent film, rather a slapstick comedy without dialogue.” Um, that is a silent movie. Now excuse me while I bang my head against the wall.
The gamble has paid off in critical acclaim. Shaun the Sheep is sitting on a 100% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and audiences are just as enthusiastic. It’s almost like silent films are… good. (But please brace yourselves for the inevitable hipper than thou backlash. As I was typing this, the score went to 99% because someone had to prove a point. Nuts to them!)
Now that we have the background out of the way, let’s discuss the film itself.
Shaun is a clever little sheep living on a sleepy farm. The farm “family” includes the farmer, his loyal dog, Bitzer, and assorted other farm animals. The sheep include the gigantic Shirley, baby Timmy and his mum.
In the show, Shaun and company had to deal with problems that ranged from “Finding a Way to Order a Pizza if One is a Sheep” to “Dealing with Practical Joking Space Aliens.” This time around, they are faced with something much more challenging: boredom.
Shaun decides that they need a holiday and so the sheep manage to get both the farmer and Bitzer out of the way so they can enjoy an afternoon of cocktails and western movies. Unfortunately, everything goes wrong and the farmer ends up in a wild accident. He is whisked to the hospital. Diagnosis: amnesia.
With no one to feed them, the sheep decide that they must rescue the farmer. The rest of the film concerns Shaun and Bitzer’s rescue efforts. Hot on their heels is Trumper, an animal-hating animal control officer determined to capture every one of the sheep loose in the city.
The plot is simple and the runtime is blessedly short, about 70+ minutes if you don’t factor in the credits. What this means is that the film is far snappier than most anything else in the theaters today. The gags come fast and furious and many of them are laugh out loud funny. To be honest, I am not a huge fan of Aardman’s feature work in general (I prefer their shorts) but this is some grade-A entertainment.
Of course, good writing and good jokes would be useless without animation to match them. The Aardman crew outdid themselves, incorporating the flock’s new environment and never once forgetting that these are very clever sheep but they are still sheep. The fact that Shaun and his friends are not completely anthropomorphized is, I think, a big secret to their success.
I find that British productions are generally the best family films. They understand that “family” is not an excuse for sloppy work and they include things that, while still kid-friendly, will please the adults in the audience. The family film genre has been maligned and the contempt is frankly deserved. Shaun the Sheep proves that it is possible to make a film for all ages without sacrificing quality.
While the film is a celebration of an unorthodox family unit and it has a strong pro-pet adoption message, it is never preachy or sappy. A little claymation tear is enough. For the most part, the film is in it for the laughs and it delivers richly.
Finally, fans of the Shaun the Sheep television show will not come away disappointed. Often, television shows converted into movies die of indigestion. The larger format is more than the characters and writers can handle and they collapse under their own weight. Or efforts to show the characters in a new environment change the tone of the show and everything that made it beloved in the first place.
Shaun the Sheep avoids these pitfalls by always keeping sight of the style and characters of the beloved series. Shaun is overwhelmed by the challenges of the city but everyone bands together the way they have done dozens of times before.
Do I need to see the Shaun the Sheep show before watching this?
No. The story is completely self-contained. While there are a few in-jokes that fans of the series will enjoy, the movie will be perfectly enjoyable to viewers who have never seen Shaun before.
Wait, is this really a silent film?
Well, if you go by the works of Charlie Chaplin and F.W. Murnau, the answer is a resounding yes. While Shaun the Sheep features assorted baaahs and bleets, the people mumble gibberish. Both Murnau and Chaplin used these devices in silent films with synchronized score. In my opinion, a silent film is this:
A motion picture in which the story is told primarily through visual means and in which there is no decipherable dialogue.
So Murnau can have automobile horns honking and cabbies shouting gobbledygook out of their car windows and Sunrise is still considered a silent film. Shaun the Sheep is in the same category. If you want to be completely technical, it’s a silent film with a synchronized score and sound effects.
I think a lot of people dismiss the idea of a modern silent film because they are so caught up in the idea that title cards are essential for the film to be a “real” silent. That’s simply not true. Title cards were common in silent films but some movies didn’t have them and using fewer cards was seen as a mark of quality storytelling.
The second hangup is a matter of accepting vocal music and synchronized sound effects in silent film. Both were common in silent films that had pre-recorded scores. Why does everything else make a sound and not the protagonists? There were technical and business reasons but just know that if you can accept the Pink Panther cartoons and the Coyote/Roadrunner series, you’ll be well on your way to understanding the surreal, dialogue-free world of silent era films with synchronized scores.
I still don’t think it’s a silent film.
Well, I think it is.
But technically if—
You can think that if you like but I don’t. I’ll bet you’re a real barrel of laughs at parties. I’ll bet you’re the one who brings up politics in mixed company and ruins the dessert course for everyone.
But you’re wrong because—
Well, that’s rude.
You’re the one starting arguments on the internet. What did you expect?
But I have nitpicking to do! And I name-checked Jacques Tati. LISTEN TO MEEEEEEE!!!!
Now look here, I’m starting to feel like Queen Elizabeth in Blackadder so drop it. Shoo.
As I was saying before I was interrupted, Shaun the Sheep is one of the best movies Aardman has put out and it is certainly my favorite animated film of the year so far (and, yes, I have seen Inside Out). For a silent movie fan, it’s a treat to see how visual storytelling has survived into the modern age. However, the film is not just a filmmaking exercise, it’s a fast, fresh and funny little adventure that is enjoyable for the whole family. And I mean everyone. Grownups included.