Fifty Shades of Grazing
We are rapidly approaching that point in the year when the summit of film excellence meets the focus of the world's media. The great and the good of the industry descend upon Los Angeles and many questions of great import are answered, even if only temporarily. What are the major films of recent months? What great insights have we gained, what ground-breaking new art has been made? How, in short, has cinema helped to elevate the human condition and teach us more about ourselves in the space of the last year?
Bearing all this in mind, it seems an appropriate moment to discuss a film which surely qualifies as a profound work of art. Richard Starzak and Mark Burton's Shaun the Sheep: the Movie is technically a spin-off from the justly acclaimed and deservedly popular Wallace and Gromit series, but this feature-length adaptation of the TV series moves on to pastures new.
All is well on Mossybottom Farm as the story opens, with Shaun the Sheep and the rest of his flock enjoying a structured, if somewhat predictable life, under the benevolent tutelage of their Farmer. However, Shaun finds himself chafing somewhat under the Farmer's regime and hatches a plan to gain everyone a little extra leisure time.
However, things go horribly awry and result in the Farmer ending up in the nearby Big City, amnesiac, and intent on carving out a new career as a celebrity hairdresser. Meanwhile chaos reigns on the farm, and a remorse-stricken Shaun resolves to go to the Big City himself and rescue his owner - not without the help (or hindrance) of all the other sheep, not to mention Bitzer the Dog. But have the ovine collective bitten off more than they can chew?
As you would expect of a film from Aardman, Shaun the Sheep: the Movie is an amazingly good-looking film, made with the most meticulous attention to detail. The technical virtuosity on display puts most other films to shame, while for the attentive cineaste there are references to films like The Terminator and The Silence of the Lambs. The film is both consistently inventive and funny, and also poignant at key moments. All the essentials are breezily covered and easily exceeded.
However, it goes on to have a significant degree of depth to it. The film takes place in a strange, allegorical world, where the boundary between human and animal has become blurred. Certainly the beginning of the film, where the farm animals conspire to wrest control from the Farmer, inevitably has Orwellian overtones, and later elements of the film have equally bleak undertones. The Farmer applies his shearing skills to the great and good of the city with notable success: the message, surely, is that urban life reduces one to being not much better than a sheep. Even more striking is the sequence in which Bitzer the Dog finds himself performing intestinal surgery on an unsuspecting hospital patient. The equivalency of human and animal is implicit, but it seems to me that there is a serious political message here about NHS priorities and the strain placed upon the system.
But it would be unfair to suggest that Shaun the Sheep: the Movie is so grim and pessimistic throughout, for it ultimately has a message of hope to offer. The film opens and concludes with a vision of a rural idyll, of man and animals living happily and peacefully together. The theme of the film is of the value of harmony and the struggle to re-attain it once it is lost. The concept recurs again and again throughout the piece - it is there in the close-harmony singing of the flock as they comfort a distraught Timmy the Lamb, in one of the film's most uplifting sequences, it is there in the selfless co-operation of the sheep as they go about their quest, it is there in the successful co-operation between Shaun the Sheep and Bitzer the Dog. By the end of the film, Shaun has grown as an individual and come to a better understanding of the natural order and his own place in it: rather than try to sustain the egalitarian structure glimpsed near the start, the hierarchy has been reasserted, with everyone knowing their place within it. To this extent I suppose Shaun the Sheep: the Movie is an ultimately traditionalist and possibly even reactionary text, but it is at least consistent in its advocacy of this position. (Proponents of diversity should also be aware: all of the sheep are white.)
Of course, the film also offers a stern warning against slavish, hidebound obedience, or too strict an adherence to an ideal: Bitzer the Dog's obsession with regulations and inability to refuse a bone are both in part responsible for the crisis at the heart of the film, while the antagonist-figure of the story, Mr Trumper the Animal Control Officer, is a baleful, almost dehumanised technocratic figure. Mr Trumper has become cut off from nature and as a result he has come to hate it, to the benefit of no-one, including himself.
As I say, Shaun the Sheep: the Movie is an endearing, superbly-made, extremely funny piece of entertainment, which I suspect even quite young people might benefit from being taken to see. But it is so much more than that. There are deep truths about life on display here, if we have but the wisdom to recognise them: it is not so much a film as a suggestion of a new pattern for life, and a better world for man and sheep alike. I can only hope it receives its due recognition in the fullness of time.
Some People are Going to Win Some Stuff
Oscar predictions? I got your Oscar predictions right here. Well, actually, no I haven't: I know I usually indulge in that sort of thing, but my average hit-rate has been so dire in recent years, I've decided to not to bother going into detail. (Plus, by the time you're reading this, the silly things will probably already have been handed out.) At least it will save me recycling my usual explanation that the Oscars are self-congratulatory and rather predictably political nonsense, with genre movies and non-anglophone cinema absurdly overlooked in favour of the equivalent of the 'literary novel'.
If you must know, I suspect Boyhood will probably do quite well, and perhaps Birdman too. It's a bit tough to call this year, but the academy may feel the urge to be a bit more playful after last year's doom-a-thon. If J.K. Simmons doesn't win Best Supporting Actor for Whiplash I shall return my academy membership in protest (should they ever decide to make me a member, that is). Will that do?