Cinestudio preview: "Shawn the Sheep Movie" seeks an audience



Sometimes in the world of children’s movies, it is said that a certain film is “for adults too” or that the humor is mature enough that “the whole family will enjoy it!” We have been spoiled on this front recently. With the advent of Pixar and the new age of Disney that we seem to have entered, each movie is carefully crafted for years to line up with the more subtle and complicated ideas that float around the heads of parents who are dragged along to the movies.

The aim of these films is to be high-concept and progressive, and they make great movies for adults and kids alike because they are written just as much for the former, but remain fast and entertaining enough for the latter.

I set out to watch “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” a relatively obscure British TV show spinoff of “Wallace and Gromit,” with low expectations. If there is a gimmick here that differentiates it from the other show, it is that the characters, most of whom are sheep, do not speak. Instead, they use squeaky mumbles that sound a little bit like human speech, and gesticulate their bulbous clay hands to get the rest of the information across to the viewer. Sounds fun, right? Perhaps. But to this critic it sounded, quite frankly, like the equivalent of a thousand cold showers.

Shaun is a sheep, of course. He lives on an English farm with a whole horde of mute animals, and they have zany misadventures. The Farmer, who has no name, wakes up in the morning to sort them, shear them, and and keep them out of trouble until a mix-up, arranged by the titular Shaun and involving a tractor trailer and a steep hill, sends the whole cast of characters into the big city. This is not an original plot—though it is almost always reserved for sequels. If you think I am making that movie fact up, I am not: refer to the Muppets, the Gremlins, and Babe.

The story is told in stop-motion animation. It is masterful work, and visuals play an important role in the storytelling. Big headed and round, the characters have a jerky, fleshy motion that is worth a little bit in visual laughs. It doesn’t go too far though, because we have seen this before. Compliments regarding this topic can go only so high—a common reaction might be to say that the filmmakers have “done it again.”

The sheep immediately lose track of the farmer, the man who keeps them in check and gives them food, and so Shaun leads the recovery mission through a vast metropolis of claymation city folk. How will they go unnoticed? Endless trench coat hijinks, and exactly the kind you are thinking of. But of course, if not for their disguises, the sheep might be caught by an animal control professional who is pathologically obsessed with capturing them.

This is all boldfaced, unabashed cliché. And yet, there is something more going on here. Shaun’s story is so universal and so worn out compared to the megalithic heartbreakers that studios like Pixar are delivering every year that the film is somehow refreshing. Audiences, especially college audiences, are not properly conditioned for this kind of low-level slapstick humor. I was not, and I am still not entirely sold, but “Shaun the Sheep Movie” is comfortable. Its simplemindedness gives it a kind of unprocessed sweetness that feels new. The reason is this: Shaun the Sheep is not a character for adults; in fact, he was written for children. This idea feels a little like a shimmering dream from the past, an idea that we have begun to leave behind. But that is the way it was once: kids’ movies used to have far less to do with adults. The reason why the clichés and the trope-weighted, sticky plot do not really matter is because this is not for us. It is actually for kids, with the added benefit of a few really sharp moments and social references that are meant, as an aside, for the adults in the audience. It’s a trick of nostalgia, and it works.

Once you see this switched dynamic for what it is, the resulting feeling is a little like the one produced by a classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It is not amazing, but it is not bad either. It is comfortable, and useful, and takes your mind of off things for a little while.

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