It's hard to believe that Shaun The Sheep is only Aardman's fourth stop motion feature film. The studio initially made its name in the UK with short films in the 70s and 80s such as Creature Comforts, but it was with the release of the first Wallace and Gromit short in 1990 that they truly seared themselves into the fabric of British cultural identity. And in the 25 years since, they've embodied a kind of effortless ubiquity that easily overcomes their relatively sparse output. Aardman is the closest equivalent the UK has to Studio Ghibli, in many ways a remnant of times gone by, desperately carrying the torch for a style of animation that is beloved and resonant, whose flame should long since have flickered out.
Going in, the signs were not exactly pointing in the right direction. A spin-off of a spin-off, the movie is the big screen outing of the popular Kids TV show, for which the target audience skews far younger than Aardman’s earlier family efforts. Combined with a lackluster marketing push and the fact that the film hasn’t even been picked up for distribution in the USA, I went into the movie with a quiet apprehension that Aardman’s creative glory days had passed, and the studio was ready to go softly into that good night.
Much to my delight, I walked out of the cinema with a massive smile on my face and more than a single tear in my eye. The movie's target audience may skew young, but Shaun The Sheep is Aardman's most assured and most mature work yet.
The movie's set up is simple, yet it rapidly spirals into madcap adventures that border on the surreal. Simple version: Shaun (the Sheep) is dissatisfied with the daily grind of life on his farm, and after a plan to cause mischief goes awry, it's up to him and his fellow sheep to head into the big city and bring their farmer back home. Also, at one point there's a hairdressing/sheep shearing montage which plays out over social media. Luckily, the story's absurdist nature is fully anchored by a rock solid emotional core, so you'll have no trouble rolling with it as it swings between hilarious comedic stepieces at a breakneck pace.
In no small part, this is due to the film's nature as a silent movie. For the entire 84 minutes, not a single line of dialogue is spoken, the characters brought to life through Aardman's stunningly detailed animation, and the occasional grunt or bleat. As an exercise in filmmaking craft, Shaun The Sheep is downright educational in how it hooks the audience into its emotional journey. From the suffocating mundanity of the opening montage, to the beautiful camaraderie of a mid film musical sequence, the movie is a phenomenal execution of a genre that is long extinct. The total lack of dialoguee is used honestly, to emphasise the power of Aardman's visual storytelling, and never once as a gimmick as in something like The Artist.
But Aardman can make movies both heartfelt and funny in their sleep, and in fact they have, multiple times before. What pushes it from good film to a truly great one is the melancholic layer of nostalgia that permeates every frame. Aardman's heart has always had one foot in the past, its work a celebration of a rural Britain that has spent the better part of the last two centuries slowly dying, and Shaun The Sheep brings that conflict to the forefront and addresses it head on.
Its rural characters are dissatisfied and loveless, going through the motions of their lives, and it is only through upon their exposure to the big city that they begin to realise what it is they don't want to lose. The design captures both rural and urban Britain to a tangible detail, from faded green road signs to sterile NHS hospital hallways, to the way a train line functions as a mark across the landscape, grafting countryside and cityscape together like a stitch in cotton.
Much like Shaun is here, Aardman are a studio grappling with the reality that they are growing up in a world that is rapidly leaving them behind, and sooner or later they need to come to terms with it. This conflict is nothing new in British art, blind rural nostalgia was already old when Far From The Madding Crowd did it over 140 years ago. But whereas that terrible book (come at me, Thomas Hardy), and even Lord of the Rings to a certain extent, paint encroaching modernisation as a boogeyman ruining a superior traditional way of life, Shaun The Sheep is a domestic and honest story about finding your own space within a world out of your control.
However, lest hose ridiculous literary comparisons make you forget: this is a kids movie, and a fantastic one at that. Aardman speak from the heart, but never so loudly that they lose sight of a movie that will make children laugh and cry. It's hilarious and charming, bursting at the seams with character and stuffed with approximately a billion sight gags. Shaun The Sheep is a movie that aims young but feels so old. It could have so easily been them selling out, but instead, it is a great studio's best work yet, a movie more intimate and personal than anything Aardman have released prior.
I hope Aardman keep making movies forever, but it's hard to deny that Shaun The Sheep feels like goodbye. And if it is, then I can't think of any better parting words.