Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)

2015 #183
Mark Burton & Richard Starzak | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK & France / silent (English) | U / PG

Shaun the Sheep started life in the 1995 Wallace & Gromit short A Close Shave. Eventually granted his own TV spin-off aimed at little kids, it’s become a global hit thanks to the decision to make it a silent comedy — no need to pay for pesky dubbing into other languages, while its sheer quality (it is Aardman, after all) helps it to transcend national boundaries. This year, Shaun and friends made the leap to the big screen, in what may be the year’s best animated movie.

The film begins with Shaun and the other ovine occupants of Mossy Bottom Farm getting fed up with the daily grind of being sheep, so they concoct a plan to distract sheepdog Bitzer so they can lure the Farmer into a slumber and take over the farmhouse for a well-earned break. Naturally things go awry, and the Farmer ends up whisked off to the Big City. With no one to feed or care for them, Shaun, Bitzer, and the rest hop on a bus and set off to retrieve their friend.

Expanding a series of five-minute-ish shorts to feature length is always a risky proposal, but fortunately we’re in the more than capable hands of Aardman Animation here, and they’ve come up with a plot big enough to fill a feature running time. In a style one might describe as ‘classical’, you can break the film down into individual segments and sequences, each one a crafted vignette of silent slapstick. That doesn’t make the story episodic, but rather serves to keep the humour focused — no gags are overused or outstay their welcome. Indeed, some fly so fast that they’re literally blink-and-you’ll-miss it. I suspect this means Shaun would reward repeat viewings, particularly to spot all the little background details.

It’s also in the details that Shaun proves itself to be a true family film. Like the TV show, it’s sweetly innocent and simple enough for little’uns (that US PG is thanks to a couple of oh-so-rude fart jokes), but there’s a sophistication to the way that simplicity is handled that adults can enjoy. There are also references and in-jokes for the grown-ups; not hidden dirty jokes that’ll put you in the awkward position of having to explain to the kids why you were laughing, but neat puns (note the towns that the Big City is twinned with) and references to other films (like Taxi Driver. Yes, really.)

Naturally, technical aspects are top-notch. Aardman are the kings of claymation, consistently delivering work in which the animation is polished, clever, and surprising, but which also retains the sense that it was achieved by hand (unlike some other films — Corpse Bride, say — which are so slick you begin to wonder if they’re actually CGI). I always marvel at stop-motion anyway — the persistence to animate something a frame at a time, taking days to create one shot and months to create one scene, is a dedication and skill I can barely fathom — but Aardman’s productions routinely push beyond your expectations of the form.

Aardman’s stop-motion silent comedy will certainly lose to Inside Out across the board come awards season (apart from at the BAFTAs, perhaps), but it’s the more inventive, amusing, innovative, accomplished, and impressive achievement. Delightful.

4 out of 5

Shaun the Sheep’s Christmas special, The Farmer’s Llamas, is on BBC One on Boxing Day at 6:10pm.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

What We Did on Our Holiday (2014)

2015 #26
Andy Hamilton & Guy Jenkin | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | UK / English | 12 / PG-13

What We Did on Our HolidayOutnumbered: The Movie” is the pithy way to describe this comedy from writing-directing duo Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin (the pair behind the successful BBC sitcom), which sees divorcing parents Doug and Abi (David Tennant and Rosamund Pike) playing happy families when they take their three children to Scotland for the 75th birthday of his dying father (Billy Connolly). Their separation is a secret from the extended family, and who better to keep a secret than three young kids?

It’s hard to miss the Outnumbered parallels early on, as a middle-class London family with two girls and a boy (a mere inversion of the series’ two boys and a girl) battle with the kids’ oddities as they try to load the car for a road trip. There’s a suspicion that Hamilton and Jenkin are returning to their half-improvised TV show’s early glory days, when the natural kids said funny things and the adults had to react. If anything, however, the more Kids Say the Funniest Things: The Sitcom tendencies of early Outnumbered are toned down for this movie, which (like later seasons of the series) is very story-driven much of the time.

This comes particularly to the fore in the second half, following a midway ‘twist’ that threatens to turn the rest of the movie on its head. Doug and AbiFor some, the shift may scupper things. For me, it only makes it better: the story’s pathos and emotion are brought into focus, and the humour becomes all the funnier for punching in as tonal relief. It often seems to me that movies struggle to stay amusing for a full feature running time (there’s surely a reason all TV comedy comes in 30 minute chunks), but this story allows Hamilton and Jenkin to spread the laughs out a little without them feeling few or far between.

The three kids aren’t as instantly memorable as Outnumbered’s — there’s no Karen (for my money, one of the greatest sitcom characters ever) — but that’s not to sell their talents short. They may not get the same volume of funny lines, but they’re wonderfully naturalistic and un-stage-school-y. As the eldest, Emilia Jones has the most to do, bridging the gap between the kid-like young pair and actorly adult (much as Jake did on TV, indeed). She’s already been in Doctor Who, Wolf Hall and the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean, and will soon be seen amongst the starry cast of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise. One to watch? Maybe.

The adult cast are no slouch either, mind. Oscar-nominee Pike is the headline now the film’s being released in the US, with the always-popular Tennant joining her as the other nominal lead. Arguably they’re the straight men to both the kids and the array of comedy actors in supporting roles, idealised fun granddadincluding the likes of Ben Miller, Amelia Bullmore (getting the best subplot), Annette Crosbie and Celia Imrie. The real grown-up star, however, is Connolly. You get the sense he’s as scriptless as the kids are, improvising away with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, like some kind of idealised fun granddad. The scenes with just him and the kids are certainly one of the highlights, among the most amusing and the most affecting.

I wouldn’t have really objected if What We Did on Our Holiday had no higher aims than being Outnumbered: The Movie, though trying to recapture the alchemical comedy gold of the series’ early days may well have been a hiding to nothing. Hamilton and Jenkin are on a slightly different tack here, however, even if fans of the series may find it’s a variation on a theme. It’s a theme that stands repeating though, and by mixing in musings on loss and change and how, sometimes, the innocence of kids is more grown-up than the formality of adults, the writer-directors find enough to make their feature debut stand on its own merits.

4 out of 5

What We Did on Our Holiday is released in US theaters tomorrow, and is available via all the usual home entertainment choices in the UK.

Cockneys vs Zombies (2012)

2014 #107
Matthias Hoene | 87 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15

Cockneys vs ZombiesScreenwriter James Moran doesn’t like it when people compare Cockneys vs Zombies to Shaun of the Dead, which is unfortunate because the “British zombie comedy” subgenre doesn’t offer many alternatives. Despite following in eight-year-old footsteps, however, Cockneys vs Zombies does enough right to commend itself as much more than a belated wannabe.

A dual storyline follows a gang of young heart-of-gold wannabe-bank-robbers and a home full of OAPs as they try to fend off a zombie apocalypse. Silliness ensues, though it’s clearly made by genre fans who know their stuff — much like Shaun, then. It’s genuinely laugh-out-loud funny in places, buoyed by a quality cast that includes the likes of Honor Blackman and Richard Briers, the latter of whom stars in a genius “why has no one thought of this before?!” moment… that you’ve probably seen in a trailer or something. And if you haven’t, I’ve gone and included a picture.

On the horror side, there’s some pretty good practical and CGI effects, considering the budget it must’ve had. Some reviews take time out to criticise the film for this, which gets my goat — why do so many people seem to expect blockbuster-level effects from very-low-budget indie movies? Genius.And why is their imagination so stunted that they can’t accept them anyway?

Leaving morons aside, Cockneys vs Zombies transcends its trashy title to be a downright entertaining comedy-horror. Not as groundbreaking or cinematically literate as Shaun, but a silver medal shouldn’t be sniffed at.

4 out of 5

Beyond the Pole (2009)

2011 #91
David L. Williams | 87 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK / English | 15

Beyond the PoleAdapted from a cult Radio 4 series, Beyond the Pole is a British mockumentary about “the first carbon neutral, vegetarian and organic expedition ever to attempt the North Pole”, starring Stephen Mangan Off Green Wing and other recognisable faces.

In case it wasn’t clear, this is a comedy. Unfortunately it’s only mildly amusing rather than laugh-out-loud hilarious. Worse still, it’s occasionally a bit thumb-twiddly as the inevitable plot points inevitably happen. In fact, it goes a bit OTT with implausibility for my liking. The pair of polar ‘explorers’ are attempting this with no training at all? Their UK base/contact is a caravan in a field with some satellite dishes on top? The performances and shooting style are too grounded to sell this kind of thing to me. Most of the film is asking you to believe that this is, while clearly a comedy, still plausible, but some of these points don’t quite gel.

Even after that, it still goes a bit awry as the story heads into the third act. Events get too serious for the farcical comedy it started out as. I believe it’s possible to make that transition from comedy to meaningful, serious drama — often making the dramatic section all the more effective because it surprises you — but Beyond the Pole doesn’t manage it at all well.

On the bright side, it doesn’t go on about the green agenda too much, which I’d presumed would be half the point. While I’m all for informing people and reminding them Something Must Be Done, battering viewers round the head with it when they’re expecting to enjoy a nice comedy is perhaps not the best way to go about it.

Phone pole... see what I did there?It’s also impressively realised. Its apparent low budget led me to assume we’d, a) see very little of the actual trip, and b) what we did see would be all inside-a-tent and green-screened. But no, it was really shot on floating sea ice off the coast of Greenland, and it makes for a highly effective polar landscape. Good work, filmmakers.

Sadly, being impressed they managed to get some good locations and a recognisable cast (Mark Benton! Helen Baxendale! Alexander Skarsgård! (Random.) Lots of newsreaders from the BBC, Newsnight, Sky — clearly someone had favours to call in) does not make up for the lack of serious laughs in a comedy. Oh well.

2 out of 5

Beyond the Pole featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2011, which can be read in full here.

A pair of comedies — one with snow!

It’s Christmas Eve! Hurrah! All the best of the season to you, and that kind of palaver.

As I have no Christmassy films stacked up in my big pile of things I need to get round to reviewing, I’ve decided the nearest I can offer to the Christmas spirit is a pair of British comedies (comedies being kinda jolly, see), one of which has snow, which is always Christmassy. Except when it’s just at the North Pole. Like in this film. Oh shh, it’s the best I could do.

Without further witter, then, here are some reviews. Snow first, quality second — it is Christmas after all…

Unfortunately it’s only mildly amusing rather than laugh-out-loud hilarious… On the bright side, it doesn’t go on about the green agenda too much… While I’m all for informing people and reminding them Something Must Be Done, battering viewers round the head when they’re expecting to enjoy a nice comedy is perhaps not the best way.
Read more…


Though the film pokes fun (fairly good-naturedly) at sci-fi obsessives, the underlying story here is about a man overshadowed by his past. In this Rob Brydon gives a strong performance — I think he’s a better actor than he’s normally given credit for… The biggest twist, however, is that Steve Coogan plays a nice character. There’s no surprise sting in the tail there, he’s just nice throughout. It’s weird.
Read more…


Merry Christmas!

Starter for Ten (2006)

2007 #99
Tom Vaughan | 92 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

Starter for TenA predictable British rom-com, enlivened only by a few good moments and performances, as well as the excellent ’80s soundtrack.

You’d assume the plot would focus on the characters’ aim to win University Challenge, coupled with a woefully predictable romantic subplot; sadly, it turns out the woefully predictable romance is the main plot and the quiz only turns up now and then to lend some structure. The final contest is almost entirely devoid of tension thanks to this and the other conclusions hold no surprises.

McAvoy is likeable, though held back by Brian’s near-unbearable ignorance about life. The best performances come from Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall, both actors worth watching.

2 out of 5

Starter for Ten is on BBC Two tonight, Sunday 31st August 2014, at 10:30pm.