Art that is made to be appealing to children shapes the underlying worldviews and values of any who participate in its experience, young or old. Films such as Shaun the Sheep Movie may come off to some as an escapist fairy tale for those wishing to escape the terrifying speed of their plodding existence, but as always there is something more to be said about the way these films affect their audience.
C.S. Lewis, one of the most famous and greatest apologists not only for Christianity but also for the fairy tale, once said that “sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said.” It is precisely great children’s films like Shaun the Sheep Movie that speak so closely to the hearts of everyone, because they affirm empirical (that is to say, experiential) truths that sometimes only stories can fully provide. There is much more to be said on the edifying qualities of the fantastic in art, and for more on that I refer the reader to an excellent work titled: From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy.
To speak of Shaun the Sheep Movie specifically, I must warn readers as always that there are plot spoilers for the entire film in my analysis, but if you understand the way great stories work you’ll have the plot figured out in the first ten minutes.
The general plot of the film follows a band of farm animals who are attempting to retrieve their father figure (The Farmer) from the big city after they (through a series of complicated and hilarious events) rebelled against him and caused him to have an amnesia-inducing accident.
In the beginning, we are shown that the Farmer is highly involved in loving his animals (mainly his sheep) and takes good care of them. As the years go by, he ages and so do the animals. He gets into a rut of doing the same boring schedule every day and generally seems aloof, while the animals fight the banality of their existence day by day in the face of this. Shaun, the cleverest of the sheep, decides he’s had enough and starts to concoct a scheme to make the Farmer sleep so that the animals can temporarily do whatever they please. Their plan initially succeeds, and they begin to try enjoying the fruits of their quest for fun. This is quickly ended by the Farmer’s dog, who forces them to help him awaken the Farmer. In their attempt to do so, they accidentally send the Farmer in a runaway trailer to the big city. The dog chases after the Farmer, while the sheep remain behind and decide what to do.
In viewing this film as an example of our own lives, this moment is a turning point. Shaun has succeeded in his plan to have the day off not by creating one day off, but potentially every day off! Now the sheep are faced with a choice. They can either stay at home and hedonistically party it up like their neighbors, the Pigs (notice that not-so subtle commentary!), or they can undertake an arduous quest to seek their Father figure and restore the bond that was broken in their relationship. Metaphorically speaking, this could be seen as a Pilgrim’s Progress style journey towards completeness. The choice that the sheep make here is crucial, they decided to reject the vacuous existence of their neighbors and pursue the glory of love they could share with the Farmer (Father) instead. The sheep realize that they simply cannot provide for themselves and that their existence would be meaningless without the Farmer, and thus the only option truly available is to seek him. Blaise Pascal would enjoy this film’s philosophy!
Now you might argue here that I’m reading too much of my Christianity into this, and if I were trying simply to determine the exact philosophy of the film’s creators you would probably be right. But what the creators specifically intended is not the point here. The point is how these plots affect our hearts and minds. What Shaun the Sheep Movie did was show that true love is worth fighting for even when it’s extraordinarily difficult. I don’t mean specifically the eros (romantic) love, I mean the storge (familial) and agape (selfless) love.
The sheep were disappointed by how the Farmer was acting in his daily life. He seemed to have forgotten how much he loved the animals, and in turn they began to forget as well. But as the immeasurably wise G.K. Chesterton once said, “The way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost.” Once the sheep lost the Farmer, they realized how much they loved him and needed him. In tune with the theme of forgetfulness, the Farmer literally loses all memory in an accident that makes his recovery much more difficult for the sheep. But the sheep work against all odds to bring the Farmer home and restore his memory, and eventually he remembers. In their darkest moment, the animals all hug on the Farmer for their last vestige, he sees their reflection in a glass and is finally reminded of his love for them. He defeats the evil force threatening them and restores laughter and love back to their little farm. The restrictive daily schedule is duly tossed into the open mouth of the nearest goat.
Since this film is not allegorical in nature, the Farmer does not always represent God, nor do the sheep always represent wayward followers of God. Both are broken beings who need each other for support and love. But the values that the film teaches offer an utterly Christian worldview to all of its young or old viewers. Love, forgiveness, and sacrificial devotion are placed on the highest of pedestals. The sheep repent of their wayward actions and sacrifice the comforts of a hedonistic life at home to pursue the greatest good, and the Farmer sacrifices his time in life to providing the utmost care and love to his family of sheep. The viewer should come away from the film with a new sense of devotion to what matters, and an understanding of the importance of humbly accepting that you’ve done wrong and repenting in the name of the redeeming agape.