Animation is a craft, no matter what form it is in. Be it 2-D drawings (my personal favourite), stop-motion, puppetry, or computer generated, the work of a group of talented animators can be felt (well, if it’s well made that is). The dominate form of animation these days is the computer animated form, with Disney abandoning the form that made their Studio fortune. None the less, the studio has recently had a string of quite brilliant hits, from Tangled, to Frozen, and most recently with Big Hero 6. The second most prevalent form of animation is arguably stop-motion. The time-consuming process does herald a great deal of respect, with Laika leading the way in recent cinematic stop-motion endeavours. With two examples of these forms currently playing in cinema, I thought I would take out two birds with one stone to express my views on two examples of these different, yet no less creative forms of animation, Big Hero 6 and Shaun the Sheep: The Movie.
Big Hero 6 (Dir: Don Hall & Chris Williams)
Disney’s first dip into the Marvel pool that is separate from the MCU mines material from a comic-book which began in the late 90’s. Although it bears little similarity, the central basis of the team allows for the Disney gurus to produce something that feels very distinctly Disney, and very distinctly Marvel at the same time. The film follows young teenaged genius Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), who is left grief stricken following the death of his brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney). When he begins to stumble on a conspiracy surrounding his brother’s death, Hiro is aided by his brother’s robotic health-care invention, Baymax (Scott Adsit), in finding out the truth. When they stumble across what appears to be super-villain, Hiro sets about forming a super-hero team with Tadashi’s old class-mates in order to save the city of San Fransokyo, and reconcile his own grief.
The design and execution of Big Hero 6 is nothing short of spectacular. The futuristic city of San Fransokyo is a hive of colour, energy and creativity. The opening act, which does a highly efficient job of introducing all the main characters, buzzes with invention, with every character coming across as very rounded and clearly defined individuals. The infectious momentum of the opening allows for the devastating emotional beats to truly hit hard, allowing for Big Hero 6 to navigate more complex emotions than your normal kiddy-fair.
This momentum doesn’t quite sustain, as the film loses much of its originality as it becomes more and more of a superhero movie. The initial team-up remains visually unique, as the team discover and come to terms with their powers and what they are capable of. The film veers towards being more action-orientated in the final moments, yet what is impressive is the individual sense of character that remains within the more heroic moments. It is not afraid to continue to delve in to more mature themes, particularly when Hiro is faced with the identity of the man responsible for his brother’s death. It deftly balances the conventional super-heroics with its thematic concerns in a very sophisticated manner.
Much of the charm of the film comes from its characters, and in the team we have a great bunch in which to spend time with. The true stand-out is Baymax, the huggable robot re-fitted for heroism is both a hilarious and touching creation, thoughtfully designed and well performed. The relationship between Baymax and Hiro brings welcome comparisons to The Iron Giant, with the films conveying similar sensibilities in regards to how they approach their audience; rarely pandering, and not afraid to explore mature themes, and most importantly, offering important advice for those themes. A fine addition to the Disney pantheon. 4/5
Shaun the Sheep Movie (Dir: Richard Starzak & Mark Burton)
Aardman have well and truly established themselves as masters of the stop-motion technique. While their feature films only come around once in a blue moon, they are often works of brilliance (Flushed Away not withstanding). Their latest, a big screen adventure for Shaun the Sheep, may not be up there with the likes of Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit, is still a lovingly made piece of entertainment that anyone can enjoy.
Hoping for a bit of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off kind of fun, Shaun leads a scheme which will see the farmer incapacitated for a day so that the flock can take a break from the daily routine. When the plan goes awry and leaves the Farmer with memory loss lost in the city, it is up to Shaun to lead a rescue team. However, they soon attract the attention of a tenacious animal catcher, who will stop at nothing to see Shaun and his friends impounded.
Shaun is a character that I have a great fondness of, due to growing up in the company of Wallace & Gromit, with Shaun’s début in A Close Shave standing as a personal favourite of the W&G shorts. I am slightly too beyond the target audience for his TV series (even if I have dabbled), but he has continued to prove to be a popular character for Aardman to explore. The show plays like silent comedy, and the film-makers have been rather brave in keeping with that style for his cinematic venture. It allows for the format to develop more into the physical slapstick quality that Aardman are deft hands at.
Aardman have always proven capable of providing personality in characters who say very little. Gromit remains one of the most engaging animated characters of our time, and while the characters in Shaun the Sheep are not as endearing, they still have a remarkable amount of individuality for characters who only communicate through gestures and bleats.
The visual puns and background quirks that audiences have come to expect from Aardman are present and correct, but there is the sense that this particular property has not be made with adults in mind quite as much as their previous efforts. The sets are a bit cruder than some of their other work, while some of the jokes simply do not have the sophistication that the likes of Chicken Run exude.
Nonetheless, the dedication is, as always, clearly evident. No other form of animation exhibits the labour of the craft in the same way as stop-motion. The clear indents of finger-prints add to the charm rather than distract. They demonstrate that what you are seeing is a product of collective talents, working pain-stakingly around the clock to capture a single frame of film. It is for this reason that well-made stop-motion, with charming characters, is rather full proof when it comes to criticism. It is hard to critique something which has quite clearly been nurtured and cared for across every step of production. Shaun the Sheep Movie stands as yet another testament of the vibrant energy that the format can, and always does, provide. 4/5