Keep the Wensleydale Flying

Shaun the Sheep Movie (Mark Burton and Richard Starzak, 2015)

“But just at that moment, as though at a signal, all the sheep burst out into a tremendous bleating.”

I guess there are spoilers here.

Deep into the end credits of this film, the producers acknowledge their appropriation of Silence of the Lambs – not the property of Thomas Harris or even Jonathan Demme, but of MGM. The pastiche itself – which should fall under the fair use provision for purposes of parody – came at precisely the point that it occurred to me that this was a much thinner film than Chicken Run (Pete Lord and Nick Park, 2000) or Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were Rabbit (Nick Park and Steve Box, 2005). Both of those were stuffed full with movie references, whereas this is more cautious in its appropriations. Ownership is respected.

It’s a familiar enough reactionary fable: on the farm the sheep are alienated from the product of their labours, the days ticking by in Sisyphean toil. A dog, lackey of the system, helps the farmer in his exploitation, blind to the ways in which he too is a cog in the system. The very name of the farm – Mossy Bottom – shows its position within society and the stasis of such society.

Come the day of the revolution – masterminded by Shaun – the dog is restrained by a turncoat dog and the farmer is driven into exile. The sheep briefly take over the farmhouse and briefly enjoy the fruits, but the opportunist pigs rapidly take their place in the second part of the June Revolution. Unable to function without a master, the sheep face starvation and follow the similarly interpellated dog into the Big City. In perhaps the most interesting ideological move of the film, the wider system becomes apparent – the dog substitutes for a surgeon and the farmer for a barber. Note how the farmer/barber receives but a fraction of the payment for his work, his excess labour swelling the surplus value of the salon. In a sneaky use of a dual time frame, the farmer becomes gains the status of a commodity whilst the animals remain in Aristotelian time. Meanwhile there is social satire in a restaurant worthy of Buñuel.

As a parable for children, however, the urge is for restoration. Dorothy may get out of Kansas, but she knows there’s no place like home. The Bakhtinian carnival of the central section of the film is but licensed escape and the Animal Containment officer’s encagement of the sheep as strays in the city disguises the cage of Mossy Bottom farm in an appropriately Foucauldian manner. The gate must be kept shut at all times. We prefer it that way.

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