Animals fare far better in silents than talkies. The absence of dialogue puts them on an equal footing with their human co-stars, and what’s more, they’re cuter. The only place left in these synchronised days where feathered and furred characters can expect top billing is in animated movies – digitally rendered and belting out showtunes. While we have become accustomed to talking animals in children’s animations, ever since Mickey Mouse started to squeak, Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep is a gent from the old school, having stubbornly refused to articulate anything more complicated than a bleat for 20 years.
And now Shaun the Sheep, who like the most illustrious slapstick comedians, is both black-and-white and silent, has been given his very own feature film. And no bankable Hollywood name has been roped in to voice his inner monologue. While the advance publicity has not been playing up the silent angle, this is a dialogue-free delight, a champion of visual gags, physical comedy and unutterable joy. Following on from the 2007 series of short animations made for CBBC, Shaun and his fellows dwell in an almost wordless world, baa-ing and snorting and belching their feelings, just like their harrumphing two-legged companions. As in the shorts, the written word often appears as an incomprehensible squiggle – perfect for young children who would be challenged or bored by too many letters.
But Shaun the Sheep has an adult audience too, who appreciated his seven-minute TV escapades not just as kid-friendly fun, but as throwbacks to the silent comedy greats. Aardman’s previous films have cheekily plundered the classics for plots and sly in-jokes – restaging The Great Escape in a hen coop for its feature debut, Chicken Run (2000). Shaun the Sheep the Movie is no exception. There’s barely a frame, or a foley effect here that isn’t a wink to Jacques Tati. And amid nods to Inception, Taxi Driver and The Terminator, there is a Hannibal Lecter-impersonating cat who wins the movie-reference game hands down. C’mon, you’d feel cheated without a mention of The Silence of the Lambs, wouldn’t you? There’s a tip of the titfer to classic British animation too. Shaun’s longing for a break from the farm’s daily grind of tedium and indignity accidentally results in a barnyard mutiny and more than a shade of Animal Farm.
As far as silent references go, I spotted the briefest nods to Chaplin’s The Circus, City Lights and The Gold Rush. And when the sheep cause a scene in a restaurant that leads into a chaotic chase, the in-house pianist knows exactly what to do. In fact, from its ease with wordless communication to the exuberant pleasure it takes in runaway vehicles and ludicrous chases, there’s no doubt that this film is suffused with the spirit of great silent comedy cinema. If you know that Aardman has been a longstanding supporter of its local silent comedy festival – Bristol’s Slapstick weekender – this will come as no surprise.
The movie’s plot, in which the residents of Mossy Bottom Farm, sheep, farmer and sheepdog all, are bounced into the Big City, reflects a trend in 1920s movie-making that was both overawed and terrified by the towering growth of cities. From Speedy to Metropolis, City Symphonies to Lonesome, The Cameraman to It, the city is a dangerous playground. And so it is for our flock, who are buffeted, bewildered and buoyed by the city streets.
But this is not an exercise in cinema appreciation, it’s a breathlessly paced, beautifully inventive children’s comedy, structured around a series of ingenious pranks and escape plans. There are far more bum jokes, than bum notes, here, although the sustained sense of excitement strains slightly during a couple of pop-song montages, and the dog-catcher villain isn’t always as scary as he should be. But otherwise, Aardman has proved that an 85-minute film can exist without dialogue, and that diegetic sound was put on earth for fart jokes alone.
In fact, the real nostalgia game being played here is not directed at the 1920s, but the 1990s. Shaun first appeared in A Close Shave in 1995, when the mums and dads in the audience will likely have been teenagers or kiddies themselves, and the movie sticks to that chronology – the opening sequence is a home-video montage of Shaun as a lamb, being bottle-fed by the young farmer, to the tune of a sugary 90s indie fake, voiced by Ash’s Tim Wheeler, and ostensibly played on a portable cassette player. That first song, ‘Feels Like Summer’, takes on a crucial, and poignant, narrative purpose, particularly when harmonised by the flock, baa-bershop quartet style. It’s a smart touch – the sheep have beautiful voices, but that doesn’t mean they have to use them.
- Shaun the Sheep the Movie is released in UK cinemas on 6 February 2015