My local picture house was showing The Theory of Everything this past weekend, alongside the Shaun the Sheep Movie. Unlocking the secrets of the universe, or a frolicking lambs’ tale down on the farm – no contest there, you might think. Well, the sheep won, and rightly so in my opinion, as the first welcome surprise this movie brings is a seconds long, claymation, Hitchcockian cameo by Mr Nick Park himself, in all his cosy, middle-aged glory; doing a bit of clandestine bird watching, before being rudely discovered. What a nice touch though, to place the ever so nice creator of Wallace and Gromit right into the heart of the action in this wild and woolly yarn – and an even nicer touch when the irate birds attack the lovely Mr Park (I’m a fan), in a further nod to Hitchcock, via that classic chiller, The Birds.
I know Shaun from his brief appearance in A Close Shave. I’ve never watched the TV series, so this was an opportunity to get to know this intrepid sheep and the rest of the Mossy Bottom gang (never ones to miss a Carry On style joke, are the quintessentially British Aardman.) And what a motley flock are Shaun and his ovine crew. There’s one in rollers, one’s a toddler, one’s obese, one’s a bit goggly-eyed, one seems a bit stupid – a comically inclusive band of barnyard brothers. Then there’s Shaun the hero, possessed of a higher than average ovine IQ, an eye for the main chance and what passes for good looks, I imagine, in this fanciful world of sheep rearing. The Farmer is very strange. His eyes remain permanently closed behind large glasses, robbing him of any real character (perhaps that’s why he’s simply known as The Farmer) and making him very hard to love; the one flaw, I think, in this stop-motion universe. Add three decidedly not little pigs, however, and a curiously orange sheepdog, with a very big nose, then you know you’ve entered the Lord/Sproxton/Park twilight zone.
This film has ‘hand made in Britain’ stamped all over it. As soon as a rather cocky cockerel appears in the opening titles, holding aloft his homemade placard, with the hand (or should that be claw-painted) words ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ on it, we know we’re back in lovingly crafted Aardman Land.
Apart from various animal noises, other sound effects and a strange non-specific language uttered by the humans, this film is largely of the silent movie kind. Plot-wise, Shaun has become tired of the daily farmyard grind and hatches a plan to render the Farmer comatose, so he and his friends can get some well earned ewe and me time. This plan involves a mercenary duck, Bitzer chasing a bone with a mind of its own, show jumping sheep, ear muffs and a caravan. Not your average plot devices, but they work; this being Aardman Land. The plan, of course, goes astray, and the Farmer is inadvertently whisked away to the Big City, suffering memory loss in the process, and it’s up to Shaun the sheep to follow him and save the day.
The Big City scape is rendered in remarkable, impeccable detail, possessing all the toy town charm of a model railway or a child’s doll house, but on a breathtakingly more intricate and realistic scale. The Big City is nameless (but it appears as though New York has suddenly appeared on the Mossy Bottom horizon), and is there to teach us a few life lessons – that as well as offering excitement, the Big City can be a cold and vacuous place; that home is invariably where the heart is; that the notion of celebrity is essentially absurd; that family is everything, whether you’re a sheep or a human.
Shaun is quickly joined by his idiosyncratic gang, which is the cue for much heartache, hardship and laughter involving, in rapid succession, a stint in animal jail, homelessness, cross-dressing, inter-species snogging (!), a giant pantomime horse, and the Farmer’s sheep shearing skills bringing him unexpected fame and fortune, as he transforms himself into an amnesiac, bucolic Vidal Sassoon.
The artistry, dedication and painstaking detail evident in this film proves, once again, that Aardman are exceptional at what they do – baa none. The landscape is recognisably today’s Britain, peopled by the multi-cultural young and old; complete with wheelie bins, charity shops, iPads, mobile phones and double deckers; whilst retaining the feel of the more nostalgic world of the much missed Wallace and Gromit. There are plenty of sight gags to satisfy the adults in the audience, with a Beatles reference which will go right over the film’s target audience’s heads; and a flash of ‘farmer’s bum’, as opposed to your average builder’s behind (although the very small kiddies seated next to me fell about at this point.)
Though I enjoyed, and thoroughly recommend, this big screen glimpse into the life and times of Shaun the sheep, and his ovine buddies; I occasionally found myself hoping that the hapless Wallace might come walking around one of the Big City skyscraper corners, with the faithful Gromit in tow, just to give Shaun, and us, that comforting, unmistakable Nick Parksian glow. Shaun the sheep’s sheepish shenanigans raise more of a gentle smile than rip-roaring laughter – but that’s good-natured, home grown Aardman for you – and may not be everyone’s cup of farmyard tea; but I personally hope that Aardman continue to produce their distinctive, stop-motion, claymation visions of this green and pleasant land for many years to come; whether that be in the form of the hopeful return of Wallace and Gromit, or the further big screen adventures of the farm based Shaun.