With all the focus this weekend on the spectacular Fantastic Four, director Josh Trank’s role in it,, the studio response, and how much damage a single tweet can inflict on box-office returns, the weekend’s other bomb is getting lost amidst the online chaos. And no: I’m not talking about The Gift (which actually managed to double its production budget).
I’m talking about Shaun the Sheep, the Aardman movie that debuted this weekend at number eleven at the box office, with a measly $4 million (and $5.5 million since its Wednesday release). That’s a terrible number, especially when you consider the reviews (it’s sitting at 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), and Aardman’s track record: The stop-motion studio usually churns out modestly-budgeted flicks that earn $30 to $60 million domestically. Shaun the Sheep will be lucky to hit $15 million (although, it should recoup expenses internationally, as it’s put up nearly $60 million outside of America).
What the hell happened? It seemed like a smart release date: Minions has been in theaters over a month, Inside/Out has finally begun to fade, and there’s no real other option for kids right now. Shaun the Sheep is a fairly well known entity (it’s a spin-off of Wallace and Gromit that’s popular enough to have its own spin-off, Timmy Time). Shaun the Sheep is also special in that its gentle, inoffensive nature could reach all the way down to three year olds and up to maybe 10 or 11 year olds. Plus, in general, parents don’t give a damn how good a movie is, they’re going to take their kids to see it if their kids want to see it, damnit. So, why didn’t kids want to go see Shaun?
It’s not due to lack of marketing. Maybe most of you never saw an ad for it, but most of you probably don’t watch YouTube Kids. Rather, I think there is apparently a line that most parents won’t cross, and that’s a kid’s movie with no dialogue. The snooty critic in me, of course, says, “Screw that! It’s a splendid, marvelous little gem of a film. What’s wrong with parents that they won’t take their kid to see such a delight!”
But the parent in me agrees with the other parents: Shaun the Sheep really could’ve used some loud obnoxious noises, a few dumb pratfalls, and a supporting character with a catch phrase or two … anything, really, to keep children from growing restless. I took my three and a half year old twins to see it — their first movie-going experience ever — because how often do studios release movies appropriate for three year olds (the last one I could remember was Winnie the Pooh, which I took my then 3 year-old-son to see). They liked it well enough, but I think mostly because of the popcorn and the novelty of finally getting to go somewhere they’ve heard so much about. But the precocious eight year old with an almost supernatural ability to focus? He was bored. And me? I saw Fantastic Four the night before, and I had more fun hating Fantastic Four than I did “appreciating” Shaun the Sheep.
WHICH IS STRANGE, because Shaun the Sheep is an objectively good movie! It’s a sweet, adorable story about a flock of sheep who — in an effort to break the tedium of their daily lives — put their farmer/owner to sleep so they can enjoy a day unencumbered by feeding rituals and shearing. But the farmer’s trailer home rolls away into the big city, he bumps his noggin’, loses his memory, and the sheep spend the rest of the movie trying to get him back and reclaim their daily ritual. There’s also an animal control guy who plays a villain who isn’t scary enough for any kid who is old enough to understand what a villain is. “There was a bad guy in it, Daddy.” “Yes, there was.” “He was bad.” “Yep.”
That’s as much reaction as he elicited. The Backson in Winnie the Pooh was more daunting, and he didn’t even exist.
But see, there’s no dialogue, and while the story is easy to follow along in spite of that, it still feels like The Artist for toddlers, only toddlers don’t want to watch a silent movie. They want to watch Elsa sing, or Chris Pratt f*ck Batman up in The Lego Movie, all of which is to say: Most parents aren’t going to get a lot of mileage out of forcing their kids to appreciate the sophistication of Shaun the Sheep. It’d make for a splendid 20-minute short, but at an hour and a half, the only audience that can truly appreciate it is the critic who loves it for its technical merits.
But if you’re a parent that is looking of a great film that is both delightful and engaging: Watch Paddington, one of the best films for kids or adults of 2014.