All the Sheeple should be watching Aardman animation while the world burns
In the 1990s, you couldn’t be a proper film snob without a copy of Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit animated shorts in your VHS collection. The three seminal films, each about a half hour long, were all Oscar winners or Oscar nominees. A Grand Day Out, A Close Shave, and The Wrong Trousers, each featuring a geeky British inventor and his extremely expressive dog, were also tremendous crowdpleasers, the rare treats that were worth the multiple years it took for each one to get made.
Though Wallace & Gromit have been out of commission since their 2005 Oscar-winning feature The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (at least for the time being) they helped build a stop-motion film studio that has plenty of other great offerings. On the news that Netflix will be distributing a sequel to the 20-year-old classic, Chicken Run, now’s a great time to catch up with all of Aardman Animation’s other projects.
I can forgive you for not keeping up with Park’s studio in recent years, especially if you don’t have young kids. Early Man was an under-the-radar release in America in 2018 and the excellent, but underappreciated Oscar-nominated 2015 feature Shaun the Sheep Movie made a bigger splash in England.
But what if I told you Aardman is still making shorts that are as good or nearly as good as “Wallace & Gromit” and a lot more often?
Here’s where the really good news starts: behind 365 Days and many scrolls away from the highly avoidable Space Force, Netflix has buried an entire new season of Shaun the Sheep shorts called Shaun the Sheep: Adventures from Mossy Bottom.
If you’re already a fan of Shaun the Sheep and weren’t aware of this development, go watch them right now. If you still need persuading that this is absolutely required viewing in the middle of a resurgence of COVID-19, read on.
Shaun with the wind
Quick background: “Shaun the Sheep” is a spinoff of the Wallace & Gromit short A Close Shave.
“Shaun” (sounds like “Shorn,” get it?) was a TV series broadcast internationally for nearly 10 years and five seasons. Shaun is a sweet but sometimes mischievous sheep who lives on Mossy Bottom Farm with mean pigs, a sneaky squirrel, a good-natured but daft Farmer and his dog/farm hand, Bitzer. You’d think the pastoral setting would make for boring cartoons, but as with Wallace & Gromit, the show’s creators pack each short with clever contraptions and weird adventures. It never feels mundane. In one of the new “Mossy Bottom” episodes, Shaun and his buddies discover they can make pizzas out of ingredients around the farm using a new outdoor wood-fired oven the Farmer has installed. Soon, they’ve built a semi-automated pizza production facility and attracted an enormous backlog of online orders.
In both the Shaun the Sheep Movie and some of the new episodes, social media and YouTube figure prominently, whether the Farmer is becoming a celebrity hairstylist because of mistaken online identity or the sheep create a viral dance video using a green screen in the barn.
All six seasons of the Shaun the Sheep short films and both movies are so good, in short or long doses, that I began to look for cracks in the facade as I rewatched them recently. Surely Aardman can’t crank these laboriously produced stop-motion products at such a fast clip and keep their quality so high.
The strain shows a bit on Farmageddon, a Shaun the Sheep Movie sequel that Aardman never released in theaters in the U.S. and which hit Netflix alongside the “Mossy Bottom” episodes in the spring. While the animators render it gorgeously, the story, about a cute purple alien child who befriends Shaun, never reaches the silly heights that the first film did. It’s an E.T. re-do, with lots of great jokes about hazmat suits, outer-space travel, and one memorable candy-fueled supermarket rampage, but the homage can’t hide the thin plot. Laugh-out-loud moments still keep the momentum going, but while there are lots of clever allusions to Close Encounters, X-Files and other sci-fi properties, the movie sags in the middle.
Nevertheless, Farmageddon retains the sweetness and smarts of all the Shaun the Sheep we’ve seen so far, as well as Timmy Time, a spinoff series that Aardman made for younger kids.
For potency and best use of your time, though, I can’t recommend Netflix’s Tales from Mossy Bottom and the rest of Shaun the Sheep enough. The first five seasons and some bonus pieces are all available on Amazon Prime, and there’s nary a dud in the entire run. Each episode, which usually consists of two 11-minute segments and a very short interstitial or two, is funny without cynicism, and completely family appropriate without dumbing down the jokes.
Most remarkably, Shaun the Sheep does it all without any dialogue. No one on the show really speaks; even the Farmer communicates only with grunts and gestures. Aardman has been doing this a long time and they’re masters at having characters expressive without unnecessary verbiage.
If you’re tired of nerve-fraying true crime and worsening national news, there’s no better balm to bring calm than regular doses of Shaun the Sheep, preferably alongside some family members with whom you can share the laughs.