You wouldn't expect the latest kid-friendly release to offer up an opportunity to discuss cinematic traditions, but Shaun the Sheep Movie, from Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run filmmakers Aardman Animations, isn't like most kid movies. The dialogue-free film uses ingenious visual storytelling to weave the tale of Shaun, the intrepid little sheep, and his pals, who set out to rescue their bumbling farmer.
Made with the signature claymation animation that Aardman has made its hallmark, Shaun the Sheep tells the story of a quiet farm, where routine has become rote, and the schedule rules all.
Shaun, the cleverest of the sheep, longs for a day off and sets in motion a plan that quickly goes off the rails, landing their farmer adrift in the big city. Bitzer, the dog, and Shaun have to join forces in the unknown land, to rescue him, and to steer clear of the clutches of an evil animal containment officer.
The film draws on various cinematic tropes to heighten its story, employing recognizable devices from suspense and action films, and drawing from pioneering silent movies and serials including The Perils of Pauline. Of course, when these devices from crime, action and heist films feature a gaggle of adorable clay sheep, it takes on a vastly different tenor. But they help the film to feel fresh, modern and satisfying, which is oriented toward children but not dumbed down in the slightest. Shaun the Sheep, like its protagonist, is incredibly smart and clever, but cute and silly enough to engage even the youngest child in the audience.
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This discussion of cinematic history is not to overanalyze or imbue Shaun the Sheep with over-importance — this is a film about silly, sweet sheep — but to marvel at the ways in which writer-directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak are able to create a compelling, action-packed, hilarious story with a few lumps of clay and not a word of dialogue. It's not "silent" — there's music, sound effects, grunts and mumbles, in addition to signs and written words, but this is a purely visual story. And yet, there's better character development and higher emotional stakes than in some other notable recent releases.
With their signature style, which feels refreshingly analog in today's overly CGI world, Burton and Starzak have built on their universe, but they also have created a piece that stands on its own. It's engaging, creative fun for the whole family — even if you don't have a child in tow.