Film reviews: Shaun the Sheep The Movie and Selma

David Gritten / 06 February 2015

David Gritten enthuses about two very different films: Shaun the Sheep The Movie, the latest offering from Aardman Animations; and Selma, a serious, thought-provoking big-screen biography of Martin Luther King.

One might have assumed that the remarkable success of Paddington in cinemas over the Christmas season was a one-off fluke, and that it would be all quiet on the British ‘all-the-family film’ front for a while. Not so, it seems: Shaun the Sheep The Movie, the new offering from the estimable animation company Aardman, is every bit as delightful and broad-ranging in its appeal.

I’d go further: Shaun the Sheep The Movie is a throwback to Aardman’s classic era, when Nick Park made three great short films starring Wallace and Gromit, each broadcast by the BBC over a Christmas: A Grand Day Out, The Wrong
and A Close Shave.

Park did not write or direct Shaun the Sheep, though he created its title character, who had a small role in A Close Shave.  Shaun is a member of a flock of sheep, working for a myopic farmer who speaks in a garbled, incomprehensible mutter.  For the past eight years Shaun’s mischievous adventures have delighted young children who watch his series in seven-minute episodes on the BBC’s children’s channel CBBC.

Shaun’s movie is a more ambitious affair altogether; he decides he and the flock need a day’s break from the routine of farm work; having accidentally dispatched the farmer in a runaway caravan, they pursue him, leaving the farm for the first time, and end up in the big city, where they survive all sorts of scrapes.

The big city (that’s precisely what it’s called) is the setting for some glorious comic set-pieces: the farmer puts his shearing skills to work in a trendy barber’s shop, and  the little tuft of wool atop Shaun’s head becomes a wildly fashionable hairstyle. The flock dress up in human clothes to avoid detection and capture, and pass themselves off as sophisticated diners in a posh restaurant. Bitzer, the officious farm sheepdog, somehow finds himself mistaken for a surgeon at the city hospital. All these scenes and more are tiny masterpieces of sly wit.

It plays like a silent movie – to the extent that human dialogue is never heard. The farmer grunts and groans, the sheep baa and bleat, so there’s nothing not to understand. The movie thus relies on the most glorious visual gags and laudably sustains them throughout its 80-minute duration.

And of course, it relies on Aardman’s legendary stop-go animation, which makes everything and everyone on screen look home-made and lovingly crafted. For me, that’s what makes Aardman films more winning than sleek, impersonal computer generated animation. It may be time-consuming and labour-intensive, but the end result feels pleasingly effortless.

I’ve long been dubious about that tempting phrase ‘all-the family film’, but here is one that truly fits the description: one can easily imagine three generations of a family – children, parents and grandparents - flocking to see Shaun the Sheep The Movie, and every one of them finding something to make them laugh their socks off.

It’s curious that it’s taken this long for a feature film to be made about the life and career of American civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Still, Selma is a sober, affecting work that does justice to the man and his work.

It’s named after the Alabama city where, in the 1960s, Dr. King began a series of marches on the state capital, Montgomery, to press for an end to racial discrimination in voting. Two of these marches were curtailed, on the first occasion by law enforcement officers. Only on the third march, its numbers swelled by participants from across the United States, did King and his followers reach Montgomery and finally saw the Voting Rights Act pass into law as a result of their non-violent action.

A more conventional film might have concentrated on the man, his relationships, family, virtues and flaws. But director Ava DuVernay, working from a script by British screenwriter Paul Webb, dispenses with a ‘great man’ narrative, and focuses on the process by how this milestone was achieved. It is gripping and intriguing.

For all that, British actor David Oyelowo, who plays Dr. King, is mesmerising, conveying a quiet but irresistible authority in a subtly underplayed performance. The British contingent in the cast is rounded out by Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson and Tim Roth, playing Alabama’s anti-segregationist governor George Wallace. Oprah Winfrey has a good role as Annie Lee Cooper, a vociferous activist.

This is a serious, complex, intelligent film, well worth seeing – and troublingly relevant today: recent events in America suggest that Dr. King’s work, even now, is not yet complete.

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