Oct. 23, 2010
For almost a couple of years now, I’ve been crowing about the joys of “Shaun the Sheep,” Aardman Animation’s “Wallace & Gromit” spin-off series on British television—until now available on Region 1 DVD only in one-disc collections of six to eight episodes. Now at last all 40 episodes of the first season of “Shaun the Sheep” are available in a two-disc edition from Lionsgate and HIT Entertainment. If you’ve been holding out, now is the time to discover the joys of Shaun.
The seven-minute episodes feature a Sheep named Shaun (get it?), originally introduced in the third “Wallace & Gromit” short, A Close Shave, as part of a flock on a small English farm with a trio of mischievous pigs, a tolerant farm dog named Bitzer who tries to keep order, a stereotypically nasty housecat, and a dim-witted, near-sighted farmer who speaks only in mumbles.
Shaun’s adventures are simple enough to engage the youngest viewers, but clever enough to entertain older kids and grown-up fans. It’s an archetypal example of how good family entertainment can be. The pilot episode, “Off the Baa,” sums up everything that’s great about the show: When a head of cabbage comes rolling into the field, Shaun takes an experimental bite—then kicks it up like a soccer ball, then begins juggling and balancing it like a show-off footballer ... much to the fascination of the impressed flock, who soon split up into teams. When Bitzer comes over blowing his whistle, it looks like he’s going to break it up. But no, he’s just playing referee.
It’s that odd blend of naivete and sophistication that’s the hallmark of the show. The sheep are wide-eyed and curious about everything, but also savvy and familiar with the ways of the world. To cite a couple of Toy Story reference points, they combine the wonder and innocence of the three-eyed rubber aliens (“OoOOo!”) with the knowingness of Hamm the piggy bank (“Oh, I seriously doubt he’s getting this kind of mileage”)—all of course without any dialogue. In “Saturday Night Shaun,” when the farmer gets a new CD player and throws out his old vinyl records and player, the sheep examine the discarded equipment inquisitively and try playing frisbee with the records—but as soon as Shaun plugs it in and they get the tunes going, they set up a dance club in the barn, with Bitzer acting as bouncer (Pidsley the cat: on the list; Naughty Pigs: no).
The running gag is that while Shaun’s ovine posse get into all kinds of un-sheep-like escapades, Bitzer and Shaun collude to make sure the farmer never notices anything strange. Occasionally the sheep must make covert incursions into the farmhouse; other times the farmer dallies in the farmyard, dabbling in oil painting, sheep shearing or some other unwonted activity. Silliness ensues.
Like most of Aardman’s output, the “Shaun” episodes spoof various cinematic genres and and conventions. They also amount to modern animated slapstick silent films: The characters have no dialogue, except for animal noises from the animals and inarticulate grunting from the farmer. Although Aardman makes the most of the soundtrack, with clever effects and a generally spare score, Shaun and friends are essentially successors to the comedic tradition of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin by way of “Road Runner” and “Tom & Jerry,” with a goofy creative twist that’s all Aardman.
I’m a huge fan of watching silent films with children (Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother or Buster Keaton’s The General are ideal starting places). Between Wall‑E, Mr. Bean and Shaun the Sheep, the joys of silents seem to be enjoying a sort of mini-resurgence in family entertainment.
Standout season 1 episodes include “Shaun the Farmer,” in which the farmer takes sick and Bitzer takes care of him (when he’s not playing video games), leaving the farm chores to Shaun; “Stick With Me,” in which the flock gets into some sticky situations with super-glue; and “Shaun Encounters,” in which a pair of aliens land on the farm at night and cause havoc.
Until the release of Season One, Shaun’s adventures were available only via one-disc collections of first eight and later six episodes. Once we have Season Two, those discs will be obsolete (give them away to friends!). It’s shameful double-dipping, but the material is so good they can get away with it. (Also, a small packaging annoyance: The case is twice as thick as a typical DVD case, though there’s no reason for it to be. Both discs are mounted on the back of the case with a typical overlapping media tray, so why not a standard width case?)
Less incidental is the fact that the Season One set, like all the earlier discs from Lionsgate, crops Shaun’s adventures to fullscreen—a pan-and-scan presentation of a show that was shot and originally aired in widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio), so part of the picture has been lost. Memo to Lionsgate: Family audiences have been happily buying widescreen animation DVDs and Blu-rays from Disney/Pixar, DreamWorks and Fox for years. Why are you skimping on Shaun the Sheep? He deserves better, as do we. (Readers who have an all-region DVD player can order Shaun’s complete adventures from UK Amazon and actually get the complete picture.)
On the plus side, the Lionsgate set offers the full complement of bonus features from the Region 2 edition, including a number of brief featurettes, a sing-along version of the opening song and a couple of simple games. You’ll probably watch those once; the episodes you’ll watch again and again.