Movie Review: Shaun the Sheep Movie

Shaun the Sheep Movie poster

Shaun the Sheep Movie poster

I posted some comments about a recent animated movie on Facebook -- I wouldn't normally call out a movie in a review of a different movie, but the story doesn't work if I don't say that it was Minions.  I suggested that that movie failed to fully make me care about the characters and seemed to tire of the plot about two-thirds of the way through, and someone said, what do you expect from a movie in which the primary characters don't speak any sort of recognizable language?

To which I replied that I fully expected Aardman Animation to create characters I care about and a compelling in the upcoming Shaun the Sheep Movie.

My love for Aardman dates back to well before I kids, more than 20 years ago when in 1993 I first saw The Wrong Trousers, the second movie to feature Wallace and Gromit, a British bachelor with a predilection for absurd inventions (Wallace), and his down to earth dog (Gromit).  Aardman specializes in stop-motion animation with clay.  Director Nick Park and his Aardman animators did such an amazing job giving emotional expression to Gromit, who doesn't speak, doesn't even make a single sound, in that movie, that I was hooked, and have seen much of their output since.  (Think of them, to some extent, as a British Pixar, though one that's been around for more than 40 years, and long before Park and Wallace and Gromit.)

The third W&G movie (1995's A Close Shave) was about a sheep rustler, and featured in a small role a diminutive and somewhat plucky sheep which Wallace named Shaun.  In 2007, Shaun got his own TV series in which he and his flock had been transferred to a farm in northern England. The basic gist of the series, which features 7-minute episodes, is that Shaun and his flock -- who are particularly smart and with human-like skills -- get into simple adventures (e.g., wanting to have a dance party) but need to fix whatever goes awry without The Farmer (as he is only known) figuring out their unusual sentience.  All the other animals have sentience -- some, like Bitzer, the sheepdog, are the sheep's friends (mostly), while others, like the pigs, are not.  Think of it as Toy Story, but with animals, shorter, more slapstick-y, and with a certain British reserve, with everything always tied up with a nice little bow, order restored.

And essentially silent, as the sheep just bleat, the other animals only make their relevant animal sounds, and the humans only occasionally mutter nonsense babbling.  The TV show is in many ways an essential classic for 3-to-7-year-olds of just about any culture.

So, high bar set, I looked forward to Shaun the Sheep Movie with excitement and some trepidation.  How do you translate the 7-minute medium into something essentially 12 times its length?  Could you hold the interest of kids in what is basically an 85-minute silent movie?  And  would Aardman make me understand and care about the characters?

The basic plot of the movie is a TV episode writ (very) large.  The sheep, through their machinations accidentally send the Farmer to the Big City, Bixter in pursuit, and they quickly realize that while they enjoyed their freedom, they miss the Farmer and the order he provides.  (The three pigs take over the house, and a brief clip shows them dancing to what sure sounded like Primal Scream's "Rocks.")  So off they head to the city, and... well, I'm not going to divulge the rest of the plot other than to say, yes, everything is tied up with a nice little box, order restored.

In a brief prologue, the movie neatly outlines the farm family's long affinity for one another, which explains why the sheep and Bixter would go to such troubles to retrieve the Farmer, who is oblivious to what is going on.  The stakes are higher as well -- while basically the only thing at stake in the series is whether the Farmer will discover the animals' abilities, the movie raises the possibility that the Farmer will never return to the farm, and with the addition of the animal control officer Trumper, the possibility that the animals themselves might be harmed.  (Trumper is too over-the-top for my taste, but subtlety in plot has never been the series' calling card.) Directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak keep the animals moving along through the city, and while it drags at points, the set pieces (such as a bit in a fancy restaurant) are very well-done.  So on the character-and-plot development count, Shaun the Sheep Movie far exceeds Minions.

But don't think this is some highfalutin silent art movie -- I stopped counting the underwear/butt/poop jokes when the figure hit double-digits.  Yes, there are any number of visual puns (my favorite: the sign in the Big City listing its "sister cities" in foreign countries... all of which translate into "Big City" in other languages) and call-outs to other movies (Cape Fear, anyone?) for the adults and older kids to pick out, but for the most part this is a slapsticky film.  While it won't turn on the Pixar waterworks, the movie may generate more kindergartener belly laughs than most Pixar movies as well.  (As I'd expect, Aardman's crew has the clay animation and set design down pat.)

So in the end, I was pretty pleased with Shaun the Sheep Movie -- longtime fans (like myself and my family) will enjoy it, and there's nothing that would prevent newcomers from getting hooked into the characters.  Definitely recommended.

Note: my family and I attended an early press screening of the movie.

Video: "Walking My Cat Named Dog" - They Might Be Giants

We here at Zooglobble HQ (which, to be clear, is my house) are looking forward to the forthcoming kids music album from They Might Be Giants.  The as-yet-untitled (to the public) album would be the first kids album from the band since 2009's Here Comes Science.

I don't have much inside information, but back in April as part of their Dial-A-Song project they released a song and video for "Thinking Machine," and its trippy, animated video and meta-silly lyrics were widely interpreted as being perfect for the upcoming kids album.

And last week they released another song that most folks are thinking is definitely going on that kids album, too -- "Walking My Cat Named Dog," a remake of a song written and released by Norma Tanega back in 1966.  (The song hit #22 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.)  With its species-bending premise (the spiritual precursor, I suppose, of Trout Fishing in America's "Chicken Joe," about a cat named, well, you know), it seems like a swell fit for the band.

It's a mellow romp, with some witty animation from Mixtape Club.  Even if it's not on the next album, definitely one for the kiddos.

They Might Be Giants - "Walking My Cat Named Dog" [YouTube]

Video: "Siete Elefantes" - Mister G (World Premiere!)

Los Animales album cover

Los Animales album cover

Over the past few years, Massachusetts-based Ben Gundersheimer -- best known to the under-6 set as Mister G, has released a number of albums partially or even predominantly in Spanish, and he shows no sign of stopping that trend.  He's just released Los Animales (the album title's a pretty good clue as to the album's theme and primary language) and to celebrate, the album's first video for its title track, world-premiered here!

Mister G teams up with the same folks who created the animated video for "Cocodrilo" -- director Leo Antolini and animator Andrea Cingolani.  This one's every bit as charming as that one, a rainbow of animals.  Non bastante!   More, please!

Mister G - "Los Animales" [YouTube]

Review: Big Block Singsong Volume One and Big Block Singsong Greatest Hits

Big Block Singsong Greatest Hits

Big Block Singsong Greatest Hits

After I listened to and watched Big Block Singsong’s album (Big Block Singsong Greatest Hits) and DVD (Big Block Singsong Volume One) a couple times, my first question was “Why have I not heard of these before?”  I initially assumed that the fact it was a (relatively new) Disney Junior show meant that I was just out of the TV loop.

Turns out that the delightful series of 2-minute music videos date back to 2009, when Canadian illustrator Warren Brown and composer Adam Goddard (now Goddard/Brown) first unleashed Big Box Singsong, as it was then known, onto the world.  (No such thing as an overnight sensation, right?)  So I have nobody to blame but myself for not knowing about the videos until their move to CBC, Disney Junior, and Nick Jr. in the UK and inevitable worldwide conquest.  Now there are 59 videos, 49 of which are the Season 1 pile which provide the 24 songs drawn for the album and DVD.  I, for one, welcome our new big block overlords.

What’s the concept?  Each video episode is about 2 minutes long and features an animated rectangular block with big eyes and mouth singing about a topic, usually themselves.  “Monkey”?  A gray-brown block with long arms singing about all the things he’s going to do meaning that it’s going to be a “two-banana day.”  It’s almost a celebration.  “Octopus”?  A red-brown block with eight tiny dangling legs.  The songs run the genre gamut, from folk (“Monkey”) to AutoTuned funk (“Sleep”) to Smile-era Beach Boys (“Nose”) to Queen (“Junk Food”).  The lyrics have a light touch and a sense of humor, with very little didactic “do this” guidance.

Big Block Singsong Volume One DVD

Big Block Singsong Volume One DVD

The videos are inherently humorous (it’s a square monkey, after all), but the lyrics sometimes offer opportunities for visual jokes.  You don’t need the visuals to enjoy the music, but there are definitely some videos (“Sleep,” for one) that add an extra layer of enjoyment.  While there's a unified animation style, of course, the different video and song concepts mean that if your kid is bored with one song, hang on, there'll be an entirely different one on shortly.

The music and videos are most appropriate for kids ages 2 through 6, but both music and videos (especially the videos) will probably tickle the funnybone of kids (and adults) considerably older than that.  The album and DVD are each roughly 45 minutes in length (with the DVD available with a French-language option of course).  You can get a complete list of places to watch the videos here, which includes the kid-friendly Disney Junior page.

The most difficult question may be, “if I get only one, which do I get?”  Sixteen of the songs including “Nose,” Sleep” and “Mad” are on both the album and DVD.  The advantage of the DVD is that you get the visuals in a format that doesn’t require an internet connection.  The advantage of the album is that you get the incredibly-awesome “Princess,” a track which doesn’t appear on the DVD, and, potentially, portability via CD or mp3 player.  If you don’t need multiple languages on the video, the cheapest and perhaps the easiest combination might be to get the standard-definition version of the 24 videos on the DVD via iTunes for just $6.99 and download “Princess” as an individual mp3 track.

So, yeah, I’m late to the party, but better late than never.  Big Block Singsong is ten tons of fun.  After listening and watching, your kids’ll probably have a two-banana day, too.  Both the album and the DVD are highly recommended.

Note: I received an electronic copy of the album and physical copy of the DVD for possible review.

Video: "The Froggy Dance" - Alison Faith Levy

I'm looking forward to hearing Alison Faith Levy's brand new album The Start of Things, which gets a release on April 21.  While a lot of Levy's kids music (both solo and with The Sippy Cups) has a big Wall of Sound, er, sound, the first song from the new album to get a video comes from a very different musical place.

"The Froggy Dance" is based on a nonsense poem handed down through generations and set to music by Levy.  Levy turned to animator Maddie Loftesnes to bring to (visual) life the silly animals Levy sings about like the frog-bird.  It's handmade and silly and fun.

Alison Faith Levy - "The Froggy Dance" [YouTube]