Peppa Pig, Shaun The Sheep, and making cinema special

Shaun The Sheep: a full length movie feature. Peppa Pig: 15 minutes of new material, and some old episodes. Let battle commence...

Let’s start with some history. The first episode of Peppa Pig screened back in 2004. It seems odd, given its proliferation on television and in the children’s sections of bookshops, that it’s only a decade old (and even then, it doesn’t celebrate that birthday until the end of May). Yet ask any parent of a child under 10, and they’ll likely know lots about the show. Not least how wonderfully useless Daddy Pig seems to be.

If you need any proof of how seriously we take Peppa around these parts, let this article be exhibit A

In truth, I really like Peppa Pig. I think it’s charming, the characters are fun, and it’s a show that’s got one of my kids in particular very interested in books from an early age. Plus, it makes me laugh. And my daughter loves it.

Meanwhile, Shaun The Sheep – a character that’s now even eclipsed Wallace And Gromit as Aardman’s most popular and successful – debuted in his own show in 2007. He first appeared back in the Wallace & Gromit short A Close Shave back in 1995, so he’s reaching his 20th birthday, just as Peppa gets ready to celebrate her 10th.

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Coincidentally, both of these characters are making their cinema debuts in the UK this February too. And the two contrasting approaches taken are illuminative of how different companies tackle cinema for a younger age group.

Listeners to the excellent Kermode & Mayo Film Review programme on Radio Five (or Radio Five Live. Or Five Live. Or something like that) may recall a debate that sprung up surrounding the movie Tinkerbell And The Pirate Fairy, which arrived in cinemas in 2014 (I think it was that Tinkerbell film, anyway. There are so many of the buggers). In his review of the film, Mark Kermode argued that the movie felt like a DVD movie that happened to be on a cinema screen, and questioned the need for a theatrical release.

He was taken to task on this by a listener who pointed out that the Tinkerbell films have been an excellent way to introduce under fives to the cinema. The listener in question took his young daughter, and she was in awe of the whole cinema experience. And Tinkerbell was her stepping stone to that. A full length feature, in an environment tailored to showing it (at least in theory) in a way you just can’t match at home.

Both Peppa Pig and Shaun The Sheep offer a similar path to the movies. Both are characters that appeal to a very young audience (albeit not exclusively so), and both offer a way to introduce younger children to the idea of seeing a film properly at the cinema. Both are also amongst this half term holiday’s film choices.

Which is what makes the treatment of Peppa Pig on the big screen all the more disappointing.

The teams behind both Peppa and Shaun have faced a similar predicament, in that how do you extend a sub-10 minute show to a cinema length story, and keep the audience engaged?

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In the case of those behind Peppa Pig? You don’t.

In fairness to its distributor, it’s being fairly candid about what it’s up to in its advertising (from trailer through to poster), but if you pop along to see Peppa Pig: The Golden Boots when it’s released on February 14th (going head to head with Fifty Shades Of Grey, no less), you’re not getting a film. In fact, you’re not getting anything close to a film.

Instead, The Golden Boots is actually a 15 minute new episode of Peppa Pig. Then, you also get 45 further minutes. Those will be filled with five further episodes (billed as “favourite” episodes, which basically seems to mean popular ones that have already been screened), with links by Milkshake presenters Jen, Derek and Kemi. So, a bit like watching kids’ telly then, just at your local Odeon.

To be clear: in short, you get a 55 minute presentation, of which only 15 minutes is new Peppa Pig material.

Contrast that with what Aardman is doing with Shaun The Sheep: The Movie, for the same admission price. It’s put years into realising a Shaun film, and has done so in majestic style. It’s delivered a movie that can’t help but leave you with a huge smile on your face, and a feeling that you’ve got your money’s worth.

Even more impressively, it’s stuck to the no-dialogue rule of the show itself, and in doing so, set itself a very difficult challenge. Can it make a film that enchants its target audience, that naturally fits a cinema length, and that offers something different than watching Shaun on the telly? Without, you know, words? Absolutely. There’s graft, craft and art in abundance. Aardman has gone the long way around, respected the cinema audience, and tried to put together something special. It might be the rose-tinted view I’ve got, but I can’t help but think it’ll lead to many anklebiters really falling in love with cinema.

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Now I’ve not seen The Golden Boots, so can’t comment on where it stands in the canon of Peppa Pig, and whether it’s a solid episode in its own right. However, as a parent looking to find something to enjoy with my kids at the cinema, from the outside looking in, it feels cheap. I don’t think I’m alone in wishing that if Peppa Pig was going to appear on the cinema screen, that it be in a full length feature (in fact, judging by the comment from the woman sitting behind me this past weekend when the Peppa trailer played, I’m not alone at all).

It just gives the impression of a rushed cash-in job. It’s one I fully expect to be hugely successful, but I wonder if – having shelled out all the costs involved in going to the movies today – there will be a subset of parents at the end who stare at the screen and wonder, is that it? Or maybe they’ll ask when the film itself is going to start, had they happened to miss the promotional material?

By taking arguably the cheapest and easiest route to cinema screens, it feels as though the Peppa big screen project (we can’t really call it a film) is more content to simply cash in on the huge popularity of the character. And in truth, I don’t doubt the youngsters who will no doubt flock to see it will enjoy what they get. Furthermore, those who walk in knowing what’s on offer may well find it serves a good introduction to the movies after all.

But I do feel there’s a missed opportunity. Say what you like about those Tinkerbell films, but they do at least try. They do use the space that cinema affords to tell a story over 80 to 90 minutes, injecting a degree of spectacle, a new song here and there, and at least leaving you with the feeling that somebody put in a shift.

With Shaun? Even more so. Nobody can get to the end of it and even hint that it should have been given a DVD debut.

With Peppa? I’m less confident. Not least because it already feels as though I can get 75% of what’s there on Nickelodeon each and every day of the week. If there’s justice, I can’t help hoping that Aardman’s woolly wonder will win this particular box office showdown. Handsomely. And that when we next see Peppa at the movies, it’ll be in a full length feature. I’d pay to watch that in an instant.

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Peppa Pig: The Golden Boots is in UK cinemas from February 14th. Shaun The Sheep: The Movie is in UK cinemas from February 5th