The first ten minutes or so played out as planned. The handful of us in a modestly attended weekend screening relaxed into our plush seats as the film set up its world and characters. There were jokes, so we laughed. There was popcorn, so we ate it. Everybody seemed to be having a jolly time.
And then – silence.
The film continued for a few seconds with no sound, just long enough to lean forward in your seat and look around for a grown-up, but not long enough to get up out of your seat and find one. The music struck back up, we relaxed back into our plush cushions, and once again, everybody seemed to be having a jolly time.
It went on that way for a good long while, and all that time I was mentally praising the film for its bold creative choices with the smug contentment of somebody with a stack of Sight & Sound magazines at home as tall as they are. This was a half-term kids’ movie with fast-food chain tie-in toys yet it was… fearless. It was pushing boundaries. It was eschewing the deluge of explosions, novelty songs and fart sounds that drown modern kids’ movies in favour of something elevated. It trusted children and adults to keep up.
This film was arty. This film was avant garde. This film was pure cinema.
I’d gone in expecting Shaun The Sheep: The Movie to be largely dialogue-free, but this was something else entirely. None of the characters made any noise at all, nor did their environment. All we could hear was gentle piano while the action of the film unspooled. A caravan sped chaotically down a country lane to the sound of tinkling keys. Shaun and pals kitted themselves out in charity shop gear accompanied by a few sparse chords and the odd arpeggio. Sheep ransacked a swanky restaurant while an unseen pianist caressed a keyboard.
“How they expected to make any money with this is beyond me, but golly, I admire and applaud them”, I thought. “How fitting that an animation studio of Aardman’s calibre should pay homage to the origins of cinema, to silent film, and the Wurlitzer organ tradition,” I mentally congratulated the filmmakers, stroking my chin. “I wonder why more wasn’t made of this in the press?”.
I am, ladies and gentlemen, an idiot.
You’ll have got there long before me. The soundtrack to Shaun The Sheep: The Movie had accidentally been switched off after the first ten minutes and replaced by the muzak they play when you’re coming in to take your seats.
I know this, because roughly ten minutes before the film ended – after a full hour of watching with no sound effects, incidental music or speech – the proper soundtrack was switched back on. (And yes, because that coincided with a return to the farmhouse where the film had started, it crossed my cretinous mind that it was all an intentional Wizard Of Oz black-and-white to colour kind of deal.)
In my defence, no one else in the audience seemed to realise what was going on until the end either, and at least three of them were old enough to go unaccompanied to the toilet (that includes my husband who has – whisper it – an animation degree. We deserve each other).
I mentioned the plush seats earlier for a reason, because it’s revealingly key to this story that it took place not at a sticky floored multiplex chain, but a posh arts cinema of the kind you’re allowed to take glasses of Malbec into while you plan how much of the Powell & Pressburger retrospective you can fit in between hummus harvests and mindfulness sessions. It’s new, lovely, run by brilliant, well-informed staff, and on this rare occasion, had cocked up (and subsequently immediately apologised and offered everyone free tickets to another screening).
Had I been at the local Odeon, would I have been as much of a dickhead about it? Probably not. In that context, the challenge presented by watching a film with no sound would have seemed too out of place not to notice. Horribly, my smug arrogance had kept me in my very comfortable seat.
And I’m glad it did.
Because when else would an opportunity like that present itself? For literally no other new release could almost the entire film have played with no soundtrack to speak of and it not only have worked, but worked brilliantly.
You had to keep up, yes, but the version of Shaun The Sheep we saw was funny and charming, which is all down to the immense skill of Aardman’s animators and writers. (Double high-five to the little boy who sat behind us and chortled at every single gag accompanied only by piano chords for punch lines. That’s a cinema fan right there; someone give that kid a slot on the BBC’s Film 2015 and a Fassbinder boxset.)
For all my wanky ignorance, there was something special about an animation screening stripped to its bare bones. The fact that we all followed the film, smiled at the film, and (especially in the case of hero boy) laughed like drains at the film without any help from the soundtrack is a big, fat credit to the brilliance of Aardman. Just not to the brilliance of er, me.
We’re going again, of course. (Just as soon as I’ve picked up the dog from its meditation class and finished making this organic jam portrait of Werner Herzog.)
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