A couple of weeks back I was lucky enough to attend a screening of Buster Keaton’s silent masterpiece The General at the fabulous Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, MI. I had never seen a Keaton film, though I’ve been exposed to a handful of Chaplin flicks, and the night couldn’t have been more perfect a setting to get acclimated. The theater was originally built in the 1920s for silent films and vaudeville, and there was a live musical accompaniment performed on the organ, one of only a few hundred left in the country, that was built specifically to accompany silent films. It was like being transported back in time, save for the illuminating cell phone screens taking pictures before the film started. I would never have imagined that what turned out to be a magical night would also serve as homework for a children’s film coming out in 2015.
And yet, here I am connecting the dots after having just seen the magnificent Shaun the Sheep, a perfect follow up to Keaton. The film is essentially a silent film, but more importantly, thrills and delights like Keaton’s bravado showmanship, and also has a hefty dose of humanity like the greatest of the silent masters.
I walked into the film cold, with my nephew and niece, and knew only that the film was stop motion, and that it involved farm animals. Even better, I went in without reading any critic’s review. In the age of the internet, being able to form one’s own opinion without the influence of others is a rarity. I’m happy to say that when I walked out of the film, I kept telling myself what a swell time the whole thing was. I think I even enjoyed the film more than the little ones.
What truly impressed me was how a film that has no dialogue, just sound effects and a few silence breaking pop songs, can hold a child’s attention for 85 minutes, offer some hearty laughs, and outdo most of the bloated and loud Hollywood blockbusters. It’s telling that three of the best films released this year–this one, the delightful Paddington, and Pixar’s Inside Out–are children’s films.
The key to the film’s success is its simplicity. A farmer has a herd of sheep that long for a day off from the tedious farm life. In a quick montage we see the sheep was wake up at the crack of dawn and gather onto a field, and in a cute sequence get their fur sheared. Needless to say, monotony soon sets in. But as the tight script’s plot kicks in to gear, Shaun, the leader of the sheep, decides to take action. He leads the sheep into tricking the farmer into falling asleep on the job, via a clever sight gag of sheep leaping over a fence. It’s such a delightful setup that immediately establishes the artistry of directors and screenwriters Mark Burton and Richard Starzak. The film is full of these moments.
As luck would have it, the sheep lock the now dozing farmer in a trailer, but much to their horror, the trailer is knocked loose and rolls away into the city. Hilarity ensues as the sheep embark after him. As is the case with The General, our heroes run into a series of complications. Chief among them is a dedicated animal warden that takes his job a little too seriously. The plot turns into a cat and mouse chase as the sheep look for the farmer, who has had his memory knocked loose.
But enough of the plot. What sets the film apart from the usual loud and obnoxious children’s films is its confidence in letting the audience appreciate the visuals without the slam bang moments that are par for the course. A curious thing happens when there’s no dialogue. The viewer is given the luxury of being able to observe the subtler moments, such as a dog and sheep staring into each other’s eyes longing for companionship. With redundant words removed, the visuals are allowed to carry emotion.
And really, it’s visuals that are the purest form of cinema. It’s the spine for which the grammar of the art form is built around. In its essence, it’s what speaks to an audience the most. With this knowledge in mind, the filmmakers have created a work out of its time, one that feels ancient and new all at the same time. That it does it so well makes it one of the year’s best. What a spectacular two weeks it’s been to see two amazing silent films.