DVD Review: Shaun the Sheep: We Wish Ewe A Merry Christmas

Hi again!

Before you ask, yes I know it’s not quite Thanksgiving and I’m reviewing a Christmas-themed DVD. My family will be the first to tell you I’m a bit of a Grinch when it comes to the holidays. After working one holiday season in a mall with Christmas music playing 24/7, it pretty much burned away any love I had for decorations and forced holiday spirit. That said, I have a soft spot buried deep for the core thought around that time of year: ‘Tis better to give than receive.

Sometimes a product will sneak through my defenses and tickle that small bit of holiday spirit I have left. When you take a set of characters I already know and love – Shaun the Sheep and the rest of the gang on the farm – and offer holiday-themed stories that are both entertaining and heart-warming, how can I resist? Shaun the Sheep: We Wish Ewe A Merry Christmas offers seven five-minute episodes from the Shaun the Sheep series by the creator of Wallace & Gromit. And every episode is a delight.

As I’ve mentioned before in other DVD reviews, this series takes stop-motion claymation techniques and uses numerous slapstick, silent film, and Vaudville techniques to present fun, heartfelt stories without the use of speech. It’s more akin to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and the Keystone Kops than most modern animated shows (except maybe for the first half of Disney/Pixar’s WALL-E). Though the animals and human characters sometimes make noises, it’s the gestures, expressions, and actions that are used to tell the tale. And the animators at Aardman have this style of storytelling down to an art that continues to amaze me episode after episode.

Shaun the Sheep: We Wish Ewe A Merry Christmas is the first holiday-themed DVD from Lionsgate, HiT entertainment, and Aardman featuring Shaun and the whole cast, and it doesn’t disappoint. There is plenty of winter mayhem to be had by these lovable characters. Three of my favorite episodes in the collection are “Fireside Favorite,” “An Ill Wind,” and “Shirley Whirley,” but my daughters’ favorite was the title episode “We Wish Ewe a Merry Christmas.”

In “We Wish Ewe a Merry Christmas,” Shaun, Bitzer, and the rest of the gang see the Farmer is going to be spending Christmas Day alone and they can’t have that. They all work through the night, finding a Christmas tree, locating directions, making presents, and getting it all set up before the Farmer wakes up on Christmas morning. It’s that kind of holiday spirit that warms my Grinch heart a bit, so I was happy that Santa Claus also made an appearance to help them out!

“Fireside Favorite” sees Bitzer suffering from a cold. When the Farmer brings him inside to rest and recuperate, Pidsley the Cat gets mad because the dog is in his spot in front of the fire! It becomes an all out battle between the cat and the sheep to keep Bitzer inside where he can get over the cold. Don’t worry though, karma eventually catches up with Pidsley…

With “An Ill Wind,” the Farmer gets an electricity bill with a truly staggering amount and decides to do something about it. He builds a windmill and hooks it up to provide electricity for his house. But somehow I doubt he planned on it becoming an amusement park ride for the sheep which leads to all sorts of fun with the Farmer’s TV set!

Lastly, there was “Shirley Whirley.” If you’ve seen any episodes, you know Shirley as the biggest sheep of the flock and a virtual eating machine. But when she gets so big that Shaun has to enlist help to push her out of the barn, Shaun knows he has to do something… So he puts Shirley on wheels and sets up a remote control to drive her around the farm. Unfortunately, the Farmer’s TV remote seems to be on the same channel, which sends the big sheep zipping all over the place causing havoc!

If you have little ones, they will probably like Timmy Time, which is a Shaun the Sheep spinoff for preschoolers. Included on the DVD is a sneak peek of the show featuring “Timmy’s Tune #1.” Also included is a “Sheep Shearing Game,” but it’s a bit clunky and gets very repetitive for little replay variable.

Shaun the Sheep is always a favorite at our house and whether you’re 1 or 100 I bet you’ll enjoy their antics too! Shaun the Sheep: We Wish Ewe A Merry Christmas is available now!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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DVD Review: Shaun the Sheep: Animal Antics

Hi again!

Before I begin this review, I must confess something. I’m a 41 year old married father of two and I still like cartoons just as much as when I was a kid. There, I said it! By now it’s probably no secret that I have a soft spot in my heart for well-written and animated cartoons, but I can’t stop. Hopefully I won’t have to stop until I stop breathing!

So why this confession? Because I need to explain my fascination and admiration for Shaun the Sheep. HIT Entertainment has just released a new collection of shorts called Shaun the Sheep: Animal Antics, and I have to say it’s one of my favorite collections since Shaun the Sheep: One Giant Leap for Lambkind. The DVD includes seven great stories this time covering everything from golf and garage sales to a persistent fox doing his best to find some dinner.

What? You don’t know about Shaun? Well, let’s remedy that!

Shaun the Sheep is a stop-motion animated series from Aardman Animations, the studio behind such great features as Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were Rabbit, Chicken Run, and Flushed Away. Shaun himself is a smart sheep with more than a touch of creativity that gets him in and out of trouble. He first appeared in the Wallace & Gromit short feature A Close Shave when he saved his flock from an evil mechanical dog that wanted to turn the flock into dog food!

The Shaun the Sheep series started airing in the UK on the BBC back in 2007, but started gaining quite a following in the US when the shorts started airing on the Disney Channel. Since then, HIT Entertainment has been releasing the shorts in DVD collections. Each short is painstakingly created frame by frame by the animators working with actual sets and plasticine/clay figures that can be posed in myriad positions. If every second of an episode is composed of 24 frames, you’re looking at more than 1,400 frames for one minute of animation – and each short is around five minutes long. That’s a long process and I have an amazing amount of respect for the artists involved.

The beautiful part of these shorts is the absolute lack of spoken words. Each character grunts, baa’s, barks, or grumbles its way through any “lines” that must be said – so it’s almost more like a silent film than a modern cartoon. The stories are told through facial expressions and gestures, which makes every frame that much more critical to making sure the intent is understood. As a result, you have a show that’s enjoyable for people of any age and language isn’t a barrier. It’s as though Charlie Chaplin has been channeled to a whole new audience.

Shaun is obviously the star of the show, but he has a lot of help on the farm. The Farmer has no idea at all what goes on when he’s not looking, but his ignorance is one of the things that gets made fun of quite a bit. The Farmer’s dog, Bitzer, really runs the farm along with Shaun and tries to keep the flock out of trouble. Shirley is the biggest sheep of the flock and is really an eating machine – and if she didn’t eat it but it was lost on the farm, it might be found in her thick wool coat. Timmy’s Mother tries to keep her baby, Timmy, out of trouble and succeeds sometimes. (Timmy has his own new spin-off show called Timmy Time for preschoolers.) The Pigs live next door to the flock and are constantly trying to get the sheep in trouble. And there are many other characters that crop up now and again to keep Shaun, Bitzer, and the flock on their toes.

Among the seven shorts on Shaun the Sheep: Animal Antics, there were three that really made me giggle as I watched with my two daughters ages 6 and 10.

  • “Foxy Laddie” not only introduces some new sheep to Shaun’s flock, but a Fox who tries to infiltrate the flock in an attempt to eat Timmy. Seeing the Fox in disguise really made us all giggle. And he almost fools the flock until Shaun and Bitzer catch on.
  • “Frantic Romantic” shows that the Farmer really needs a lot of help to impress his date. He can’t cook at all and Shaun has to step in to cook a “gourmet” meal out of scraps while Bitzer scrambles acting like a waiter at a fancy restaurant.
  • And “Everything Must Go” proves what I already knew – that garage sales get crazy. When the Farmer decides to sell some of his produce in a little stand along the road outside the farm, he gets a lot of interest and soon hands it off to Bitzer to run. When Bitzer gets tired, he hands it off to Shaun and Shaun decides he likes selling things… He and the flock manage to sell everything but the kitchen sink while the Farmer and Bitzer aren’t looking!

In addition to the seven shorts included, there’s also a feature on “Building a Pig” that features one of the animators, Harriet Thomas, working with a group of kids to show them how to create one of the naughty pigs out of clay. There’s also a short video from Timmy Time.

If you haven’t seen Shaun the Sheep yet and want something to share with your kids, I recommend picking up any of the DVDs that have come out so far. Shaun the Sheep: Animal Antics continues the hilarity and would be a great addition to any family DVD collection. To learn more about Shaun the Sheep, be sure to check out the series website and watch for other great productions from Aardman Animation!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Comic Review: Jack and the Zombie Box

Hey there!

Comic books are one of the guilty pleasures I gained as a kid. I grew up raised by two English teachers as parents and my Mom was never too keen on me spending time reading comics. It wasn’t until I was in high school I finally picked up a few here and there, but long before then I’d found my Uncle’s stash of old Marvel comics at my Grandparent’s house in the back of a closet. Any chance I had I’d dive into classic Spiderman, X-Men, and Fantastic Four stories.

For me, comic books epitomize the marriage of storytelling and art. When a great artist and a great storyteller meet, there’s no limits to what they can accomplish. And now that I have a daughter with a knack for art and an interest in telling stories, I’m finding ways to introduce her to the wonderful world of graphic novels so she can learn more about a potential hobby or career path.

A couple of years ago I reviewed Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom by Bruce Brown and Renzo Podesta which managed to tell the creepy story of a young H.P. Lovecraft and his adventures in other dimensions and worlds inhabited by the creatures of Lovecraftian horror. Brown and Podesta managed to capture not just the horror factor but the innocence of a childlike fascination with the unknown.

Brown is back now with a new book – Jack and the Zombie Box – which brings his storytelling ability together with artists Mike Barentine, Rafel Hurtado, and Shawn DePasquale to tell the story of a father in over his head with his kids while his wife is away. Now, being a father, I understand far too well the troubles that can happen when you’re occasionally on your own as a single parent. But thank goodness Brown and his team of artists managed to capture the humor more than the horror in this particular situation.

The story starts with a quote from one of the funniest people I know – Bill Cosby – “Parents are not interested in justice, they’re interested in peace and quiet.” And I’d have to agree with that assessment 9 times out of 10! That quote however sets the stage for the magic that only children can achieve on a regular basis… the ability to take one small thing – whether it’s a phrase, a song, a TV show, or whatever – and turn it from innocent to annoying in the blink of an eye through the power of repetition.

Jack is the youngest of the three children of Brad and Teri, and he’s a handful. With his big imagination, he and his toys get into adventure after adventure that unfortunately have the side effect of driving his Mommy a bit crazy. Teri is getting ready to go to a conference, but is concerned that her husband won’t be able to handle the kids. Brad isn’t as worried and thinks he has a secret weapon – DVDs of old cartoons like “Larry and Dewby Dog.” Jack loves the cartoons and as Brad says – “It’s just Larry and Dewby Dog. What could it possibly hurt?”

The first night that Teri is gone, Brad and the kids have a “home cooked meal” from Cowboy Bob’s burgers and enjoy a night in front of the TV with Larry & Dewby… That combination repeats for the next few days and when Teri gets home, there’s a little problem. Jack wants to watch Larry & Dewby and have Cowboy Bob burgers… forever!

I won’t spoil Brad’s solution to the problem, but it made me laugh out loud.

The artwork is bright and family-friendly, the story is great fun, and the combination provides 40+ pages of entertainment. Jack and the Zombie Box is another comic book I’d be happy to share with my eldest daughter. She might even catch the Scooby-Doo-like references of “Larry and Dewby Dog,” as I’ve shared more than a few of the cartoons from my childhood with my kids. And no, my name’s not Brad!

Be sure to check out Jack and the Zombie Box when it’s released in May 2011 at Amazon and other retailers!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this and other books from Bruce Brown at Amazon below:

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