Saturday, 3 October 2015

Films: Shaun the Sheep (2015), and Race to Witch Mountain (2009)

And now for something completely different…

Aardman Animations is a spectacularly successful British film studio specialising in the "old fashioned" stop-motion clay animation technique. Ostensibly their films and TV series are aimed at children but their humour has universal appeal and they are very popular with adults. Characteristically, many of the jokes are so quick-fire that it takes more than one viewing to spot them all. Their most famous feature-length film is probably the multiple-award-winning Chicken Run (2000), but they were already very popular for their shorter films; Creature Comforts (1989) and, above all, the Wallace and Gromit series starting with A Grand Day Out (1989), then The Wrong Trousers (1993 – Academy Award winner), A Close Shave (1995 – Academy Award winner), and A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008), plus a feature film: Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005 – Academy Award winner). Wallace and Gromit have now acquired the status of national treasures, with each new outing eagerly anticipated.

One of the characters in A Close Shave is a small, mischievous sheep who loses most of his wool after being shorn by one of Wallace's fantastic machines so was promptly dubbed Shaun. This character proved so popular that in 2007 he was given his own, long-running TV series Shaun the Sheep (130 seven-minute episodes and counting) and this year has appeared in a feature film with the same title. The setting for each TV episode is the same: a small, bucolic farm in which Shaun and the rest of the flock are always up to some mischief, despite the efforts of Bitzer the sheepdog and the (nameless) Farmer to keep them in line. One unusual feature is that there is no speech – neither dialogue nor voice-over – so the humour is entirely visual, but there is usually at least one laugh-out-loud moment for adults in every episode.

In the feature film, the Farmer is accidentally transported to the big city where he loses his memory. Shaun, Bitzer and the flock chase after him in order to rescue him but have to contend with Trumper, an evil catcher of stray animals. Needless to say, after many bizarre and hilarious adventures all ends happily with the recovered Farmer back on the farm and Trumper receiving his just desserts (that really isn't a spoiler – all of the Shaun series end in the same way!).

I was a bit concerned that stretching the adventure to a feature-length 85 minutes wouldn't work as well as the brilliant shorts, but I needn't have worried; the film maintains a high standard and has already received the universal critical acclaim which has become almost routine for Aardman's output. There is talk of a sequel, but the stop-motion technique is so painfully slow to produce that it will be a long time coming.


Race to Witch Mountain is nominally aimed at somewhat older youngsters. The plot is basically the same as Paul (reviewed here in May last year): alien(s) loose on Earth are being hunted by evil-minded authorities and recruit the help of ordinary people to escape and reach the location from which they can be returned to their native planet. The difference is that while Paul is an hilarious spoof of the genre, RTWM takes itself more seriously. Thankfully it does have some amusing moments, but the plot and production struck me as very routine and by-the-numbers, and the film was not really worth the time taken to watch it. Maybe I should have watched this before watching Paul

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