The ease with which a person with even a modicum of curiosity can get sucked into the research vortex is both a boon and a bane of modern technology-assisted existence. In the olden days, we would pick up a dictionary to look up one word, which would lead to another and then another until an hour passed in the seeming blink of an eye. The Internet is far more perilous and enticing; nowadays we can Google something and suddenly find ourselves miles away, our minds entranced, our work undone with half the day gone. It can happen even when you’re just researching a movie aimed at four-to-seven-year-olds like Shaun the Sheep.
Maybe you already knew that shepherds have their own counting system dating back many centuries, known as Yan Tan Tethera (with myriad regional variants). I had heard those words somewhere along the line, but didn’t know what they meant. But now I do – and that’s the sort of thing that happens when you nitpick the inclusion of multiple references to the cultural meme of “counting sheep” as an insomnia remedy in a movie intended for worldwide distribution. I figured that the metaphor was something from Anglo-American folklore that wouldn’t translate very well, so I leapt into Googleland intending to gather some evidence before I made my claim.
Well, guess what? Sometimes it’s goats instead of sheep, and sometimes it’s another person besides yourself whom you’re trying to make drowsy; but the tedious recitation of the movement of domesticated ungulates from one place to another is in fact an ancient and widespread cliché. Sancho Panza tries (unsuccessfully) to lull Don Quixote to sleep by describing hundreds of goats being ferried two-by-two across a river. That was written in 1605, and was apparently inspired by a humorous episode in a 12th-century Spanish tome titled Disciplina Clericalis, which in turn was derived from a variety of Moorish literary sources. “Counting sheep was probably a widely recognized practice in the Islamic world before the early 12th century,” avers that modern Delphic oracle Wikipedia. Who knew?
Despite being an enthusiastic fan of Aardman’s style of stop-motion Claymation, I also had no idea, until I delved a bit more deeply, how much of a “thing” Shaun the Sheep is. Like most folks, I had made the winsome wooly beastie’s acquaintance in the 1995 Wallace & Gromit short A Close Shave, in which young Shaun proves nearly as plucky and resourceful when disaster strikes as Gromit the long-suffering dog himself. Seeing a Serta mattress delivery truck pass by with big pictures of Shaun all over it always puts a smile on my face. And I was vaguely aware that Shaun the Sheep is a popular TV series in the UK, but a bit more difficult to find in the US. (It’s currently available by subscription to Amazon Prime, and has run on the Disney Channel in the past.)
But did you know that the TV version has already run for more than 130 episodes since 2007, and can be seen in 180 countries? That it spawned a spinoff series for even-younger kids named Timmy Time (after the youngest lamb in Shaun’s home flock) and a videogame for Nintendo DS? In 2011 there was a British stage musical version called Shaun’s Big Show. The International Rugby Board is using the character to market this year’s Rugby World Cup to budding fans, while giant artist-decorated Shaun statues are being put up all over London and Bristol, later to be auctioned off for charity. Land’s End in Cornwall (the place, not the mail-order company) now hosts an interactive attraction called the Shaun the Sheep Experience, and next year a Shaun the Sheep Land theme park is slated to open at the Skånes Djurpark zoo in Sweden. Seriously.
So if you didn’t know it already, now you do: Shaun is a happening international superstar. How can you not go see his first featurelength movie? Even if you don’t have any tots handy to bring along, don’t be put off by the “kids’ flick” categorization. Like past Aardman Animations productions Chicken Run, Flushed Away, The Pirates! Band of Misfits and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the Shaun the Sheep movie is an immersion in slapstick silliness that is thoroughly enjoyable at any age – the more so if you cherish that affection for the absurd that peculiarly characterizes the best British humor. To keep adults amused, it’s salted with pop-culture references that will sail over children’s heads, such as a dangerous cat kept locked up behind Plexiglas walls and collared like Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.
Richard Starzak and Mark Burton direct – not Shaun’s creator, Nick Park – and the look is slicker and less earthy than the original Wallace & Gromit shorts, using a hybrid of animation techniques that combine models and puppets with computer-generated animation. But Park’s whimsical, off-kilter approach and general aesthetic still prevail, even if you can’t see his fingerprints in the clay figures anymore.
The movie has no dialogue, and its plot is simple: Bored with their daily routine, the sheep at Mossy Bottom Farm conspire to keep the Farmer out of his house so that they can party. They put him to sleep (guess how?) and lock him up in an old travel trailer, but it breaks loose from its chocks and rolls downhill – all the way into the big city. The Farmer bumps his head and develops amnesia, eventually putting his sheep-shearing skills to work as a celebrity hairdresser. Separately, the sheepdog Bitzer and Shaun and the rest of the flock head to the city to try to bring the Farmer back, with the sheep dressing up as people. A mean, obsessive animal control officer stalks them, and an epic jailbreak must be organized before all can be sorted out.
We’re not talking Tolstoy here, folks. But I’d recommend Shaun the Sheep to anybody. In fact, most of the diehard Aardman fans I know are grownups – or at least able to pass as such. But bring a kid along if you’ve got one handy, for some seriously giggle-inducing, lighthearted, nonstop summer fun.
To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.