Shaun and his flock of sheep are stuck in a rut and are bored by their everyday monotonous life. They want to have a day off and to accomplish that, they stuff the farmer away in his camper. Unfortunately, during their festivities, they accidentally set the vehicle into motion and send the Farmer rolling off to the big city. Without him, the farm is soon sinking into chaos and the sheep decide to go on a rescue operation...
They are the undisputed masters of the genre and many consider them the embodiment of stop motion animation - Bristol-based Aardman animation certainly have left their mark on the television and movie industry since their formation in the early 1970s. From their early efforts of producing the first short films and animation for television and commercials, they had created some of the most beloved characters like Morph, Wallace and Gromit or the zoo animals of Creature Comforts. And there's also a sheep called Shaun, who has become a special favourite of children and adults alike since he branched off from a first appearance in the second Wallace & Gromit short A Close Shave into his own television series, which turned out to be one of the greatest successes of Aardman with over 100 episodes which have been broadcast all over the world.
Although Shaun the Sheep was on first glance not ideally suited for anything else than its original format - the short, five-minute television episodes -, Aardman had reportedly been exploring the possibility of making a full-length movie of some kind as early as 2011. After Wallace & Gromit successfully made the jump to the big screen in 2005 - and later back to the small screen with their fourth short A Matter of Loaf and Death - many at the studio seem to have had changed their mind about their approach to making movies only with new creations like their cinema debut Chicken Run and not their old-established characters. While classics like Morph and Creature Comforts were certainly no candidates, Shaun the Sheep was just the obvious choice for Aardman's next big-screen adventure.
Aardman movies are unfortunately rare compared to their more numerous television endeavours, mainly because the studio is actually a quite small company with no financial backings of its own. Their previous Hollywood movie deals with Dreamworks and Sony have both come to an end after three and two collaborations, but surprisingly they found a new backer not in Hollywood, but in Europe with the French StudioCanal group. Together with an investment fund called Anton Captial Entertainment, the company had already begun to focus on high-profile European-produced family entertainment and their collaboration with Aardman was simply a good match which also guaranteed the independence of the filmmakers from Bristol.
Curiously, the BBC and their international partners like the German WDR, who produced the television series, did not want to have any part of bringing Shaun the Sheep to the big screen, but since Aardman owns the rights to the series this did not present any problem whatsoever.
Transforming Shaun the Sheep from a five-minute-per-episode television series into a full-blown movie was probably one of the biggest challenges Aardman has ever faced. Instead of handing this difficult task to a whole bunch of Hollywood writers, Aardman stayed true to their style and developed the movie almost exclusively in-house. The studio "elders" Peter Lord, David Sproxton and Nick Park were not directly involved, but they certainly made the choice to let Richard Goleszowski (who nowadays prefers the last name Starzak) lead the project, who had created the television series from Nick Park's original characters in the mid-2000s in the first place. Nobody could have been better suited for this task than one of the key Aardman folks who thought up the concept of Shaun the Sheep.
Richard Starzak was, however, not all alone in leading the film's production, because Aardman had chosen to get a co-director and screenwriter involved and found an old friend in British author Mark Burton. He had already worked for Aardman on Chicken Run, was one of the four co-authors of Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and also had a long career of comedy writing for British television. in short, he was the best choice for the job and it was amazing that Studio Canal had not forced Aardman to get someone else with a bigger name and more credits. The script also did not have to go through years of development hell and too many writers, which allowed the filmmakers to fully concentrate on the story itself.
One huge decision was made right at the beginning : like the original series, the movie was to have no intelligible dialogue - an almost preposterous prerequisite in nowadays cinema standards, but Aardman wisely insisted on the absence of any dialogue save for the famous bleatings, other animal noises and incoherent mumblings of the humans. So the characters actually talk a lot to each other, but the magic of the "mumble talk" was consistently applied to the whole movie so the "missing" dialogue is hardly noticeable at all. Consequently, the movie was less written than visually storyboarded during the early development more than any other animated production, putting the focus fully on the plot. There is, however, still a surprising amount of written text in the movie, which is somewhat unusual for a production aimed partly at younger children.
Expanding the immensely condensed of the original format into a full movie was much more than just putting dozens of Shaun the Sheep skits together one after another. Instead, the filmmakers took a cue from Aardman's other long-form works and employed their special kind of storytelling to make a bigger and better Shaun adventure. Getting out of the familiar environment was an important step because too many stories had already been told on the farm Shaun and his flock live, while they only rarely had ventured further than their own home. There were a couple of stories in which the sheep briefly left their home for the city and those seem to have been the inspiration for the movie. While the old cliché of the fish-out-of-the-water concept has been done much too often, Richard Starzak and Mark Burton put a fresh new angle on it and brought the familiar characters into an unfamiliar environment, requiring all the cunning that Shaun and his flock can muster.
Originally, the story was to have Shaun & Co escape to the city for a day off their boring normal routine and have the farmer and his dog chase after them, but the filmmakers deemed this too easy and put an Aardman twist on the idea by letting the sheep cause havoc during a holiday at home, sending the farmer accidentally into the city and making a rescue by his flock necessary. This provided a lot of opportunities for set pieces, action sequences and other ideas that basically made the Shaun the Sheep Movie a rival to the studio's other full-length productions. Although the plot is hardly original and sometimes bears a slight resemblance to Dreamworks Madagascar franchise - especially its third movie - it feels no less than a genuine Aardman romp of the best kind.
Instead of making the movie a completely separate story, the filmmakers had decided to change as little as possible from the original premise. That meant almost all of the characters from the series appeared practically unchanged from their television incarnations, although the more popular design from the first series was used. The sheep flock seems to have shrunk a bit in size, but in addition to Shaun all the important sheep like Timmy and his mom, Shirley the heavyweight, Hazel the fraidycat, the Twins and a slightly crazy one called Nuts have made it into the movie. Those are all personalities that have appeared in some form before in the series, but now have been consolidated into a more compact group to keep the cast size small.
But even the pigs, the goat and the bull make small appearances, only curiously absent is Pidsley the cat.
Non-sheep characters of course include the Farmer, around whom the whole story actually revolves, and his loyal sheep dog Bitzer, who once more becomes an ally of Shaun during the course of the story like he did so many times before in the television series. Both characters are fundamentally the same as ever, although Bitzer is decidedly more dog-like and less human especially with his now somewhat overexaggerated fondness for bones - he also gets a little bit less love from the script, but this is Shaun's and his flock's movie after all. Due to the already somewhat large cast size, only two really new characters had been added - a little dog with a toothy smile called Slip who befriends the sheep flock in the city and the only antagonist of the movie, the dangerous, but sometimes aloof animal catcher Trumper.
The characters are mostly voiced by their original actors John Sparkes, Justin Fletcher, Kate Harbour and Richard Webber, who are joined by Emma Tate and Simon Greenall to round out the diversity of baahs in the sheep flock and their friends. Especially Sparkes and Fletcher are in their best form and bring back the familiar wordless voices of Shaun, Bitzer and the Farmer. While the filmmakers have thankfully resisted pushing the popularity of the movie with big names, the role of Trumper went to the british standup comedian and voice actor Omid Djalili in what was probably a case of reverse celebrity casting - it sounds like he had a lot of fun in making the mad animal hunter as fierce and at the same time as funny as possible. Together, they brilliantly fuse their voice acting with sound design in such an amazing way that after a few minutes it it hardly noticeable that no actual words are spoken throughout the whole movie.
The plot does not quite have the finesse and intricacy of Aardman's other movies, but stills bears many of their usual trademark features like being geared both towards children and adults. The underlying story may be simple and uncomplicated, but it is liberally peppered with references to pop culture and of course the original series itself, making it very enjoyable for every age. The humour is as cunning and clever as ever with most of it relying on good old slapstick and many brilliant sight gags which always look impressive in Aardman's stop-motion style, while the more sophisticated jokes still make out a sizeable portion of the story. At times, the movie even gets a little bit dramatic and there's also the customary sad bit at the end of the second act - which is actually the only real weak moment of the movie. But overall it's simply a lot of well-balanced, impressively written fun that shows the best side of Aardman's storytelling ability.
Aardman has also wisely resisted upgrading Shaun the Sheep into something bigger, better and, possibly, completely different. The movie is not a blown-up spectacle riding on the success of the original series, it IS simply the original in an expanded incarnation. Aardman has stayed so true to its roots that even a change of venue has not radically changed the very unique charm of Shaun the Sheep because the ideas and characters remain the same. It's also a very British and to some extend European affair with a more relaxed approach to storytelling than a laugh-out-loud, high-powered, action-heavy Hollywood production - the independence from any American film studio has been very beneficial to Aardman and the French producers seem to largely have adopted a hands-off strategy with the animators from Bristol.
The look and feel is one hundred percent Aardman. For the early scenes on the farm, it seems like the sets of the original series were used - because the television episodes were already shot in widescreen and from the second series on in high definition, not many changes had to be made. The main improvements were some improved lighting and new camera angles so the recreated, expanded intro looks fresh and familiar at the same time. The real challenge for production designer Matt Perry, whose previous work with Aardman goes as far back as Chicken Run, was to create "The Big City" - which was somewhat new terrain for Aardman since their previous movies and shorts did have some cityscapes, but mostly older and more traditional-looking ones. This was something entirely else and much larger, but the studio still pulled it off with an almost Tati-esque look of skyscrapers mixed with old architecture and dingy back alleys, all sporting a surprising amount of fine detail captured brilliantly by Cinematographers Charles Copping and David Alex Riddett, who had both worked on the series and even earlier Aardman productions before.
There were twenty animators working on the movie simultaneously and most of their names and the extended crew are very familiar, since this was an Aardman in-house production. Their work is so impeccable that the movie almost looks like an all-CGI production, but it still looks real and organic enough that the stop-motion process is distinctly visible. As usual, no motion blur has been added even in the few action and chase sequences, but even those look appropriately impressive. Some digital compositing has, of course, been used to bring the more complex sceneries and backgrounds together, but overall the movie was handmade in the truest sense of the word and it shows in a most charming way. While Aardman's previous movie had been animated in true 3D, this time the studio chose to go just for traditional 2D even without a 3D conversion in post-production, which is surprising given that the animation market is now dominated by 3D movies nowadays.
Musically, the movie hits mostly the right notes, but also some sour ones. The filmmakers had decided to scrap the somewhat basic incidental music from the television series in favour of a full symphonic score by the prolific British composer Ilan Eshkeri. Although he is more known for his work on European big-budget movies and had never composed for an animated movie before, his versatility proved to be exactly right for Aardman in the same way John Powell and Harry Greggson-Williams were for Chicken Run. His film music fuses the simple country-folk tunes of the original series with a more sophisticated, but also playful orchestral score which always sounds exciting, fun and surprisingly melodious. This score treads right in the footsteps of Aardman's other movies, although it is distinctly noticeable that the more loud and bombastic American approach is thankfully largely absent and the themes and arrangements are a little more subtle, which suits the movie very well.
There is quite a bit of pop music used throughout the movie, which sometimes works well and sometimes doesn't. First, the filmmakers had made the surprising decision not to use the familiar title song in the opening sequence of the movie, which could have been terribly disappointing if they had not made sure that there is a suitable replacement. This came in shape of a wonderful britpop tune created exclusively for the movie by a lucky collaboration between songwriter and singer Tim Wheeler of Ash, former Kaiser Chiefs drummer Nick Hodgson and composer Ilan Eshkeri. Like Summer Again turned out to be a friendly, funny and instantly hummable song that embodies the spirit of Shaun the Sheep brilliantly. The song also makes a sort of meta-appearance in the film itself and is also subject of one of the most amazing musical interludes of the movie, which is better left as a surprise.
The title tune is so well done that the other songs used in the musical montages are somewhat of a disappointment and don't really integrate well into the movie. Both Big City from Eliza Doolittle and You're Mine from Lucille Findlay and Chad Hobson are such a drastic stylistic break from the title song and the score that their sudden appearance almost feels somewhat amateurish. Sadly, the Shaun the Sheep signature theme does not even make an appearance in its original form, only as an instrumental and a shockingly bad remix by the British hip hop duo Rizzle Kicks, doing a disappointing disservice to the wonderful original version. In stark contrast to the almost traditional-sounding title song, this seems like a strange failed attempt at making the movie more hip and young - thankfully this version was not used in the main titles and only barges in after part of the closing credits have finished.
Although the movie has a few weak points, they are far outnumbered by the many positive impressions. The Shaun the Sheep Movie is not only Aardman's first fully European cinema adventure, but also an amazing success because who else could have transformed a 5-minute-per-Episode television series into a complete movie. While the movie is first and foremost brilliant children's entertainment, it also turned out to be a gift from Aardman to it's older fans with all the hidden humour that makes it enjoyable for, as corny as it sounds, the whole family. This is Aardman at its very best, and the first foray of the studio into purely European filmmaking, opening completely new possibilities. What the movie means for Shaun the Sheep as a television series is unknown at the moment - Aardman has not revealed so far if there will be new episodes yet.
At the time of this review in mid-July 2015, the Shaun the Sheep Movie has already had a very successful run in the European cinemas easily winning back its modest production costs of about 50 Million Euro and garnering overwhelmingly positive reviews from everyone. Studio Canal and Aardman have a clear winner at their hand and the home video releases have already started in England with more following in the next months across Europe - but the US cinema release is only in August and it remains to be seen how the American audiences will react to this very British adventure. But even if Shaun the Sheep flops at the US box office, this wonderful movie will still be one of the biggest successes from the stop-motion animators from Bristol.
After an early European cinema release in February and March, The Shaun the Sheep Movie was already released on DVD and Blu-Ray on June 1st in England, even before the US cinema premiere on August 7. Studio Canal has put together a decent home video release with solid technical quality, but only few interesting extras, making it the first Aardman movie that is released without an audio commentary.
The Region 2 UK DVD release reviewed here is basically identical to the simultaneously released Blu-Ray in terms of content - everything is replicated, although there was not so much to port over. Apart from the lack of serious bonus material, which unfortuntely has become somewhat normal nowadays, this is a nice disc from Studio Canal. It comes in green Amaray keepcase with a cardboard sleeve around it that has the same cover image, but also a nice relief print on the front.