shaunthesheep_trailer

Aardman Animation’s wordless, stop-motion wonder Shaun the Sheep Movie, a spin-off of its brilliant Wallace and Gromit franchise, is one of the most clever shows on television. So how many Americans even know it has a feature film coming out in less than a month?

In addition, why has every one of Aardman’s features earned less worldwide than the previous one? Despite the fact that its last rousing effort, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, starred Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Salma Hayek, and more respected thespians as a motley crew of seafaring goofballs dodging a mad queen in search of global notoriety, the laugher still only hauled in $123 million worldwide. That’s a little more than half of what Chicken Run, starring Mel Gibson as a loudmouth chicken leading a darkly comic prison break from a bloodthirsty farmer, pulled down more than a decade earlier.

Although Aardman has stumbled, most notably on the all-star 2006 flop Flushed Away that it made when it had a partnership with DreamWorks Animation, its smart and funny films have nevertheless pretty skillfully straddled the fence between adult and children’s humor. Shaun the Sheep’s official theatrical trailer, which debuted July 1 but has yet to sniff 300,000 views on YouTube, features juvenile gags that had kids rolling in their seats when I saw it before an opening-day screening of Pixar’s astounding Inside Out, as well as in-jokes nodding toward horror classics like Silence of the Lambs:

The scene where Shaun and his pal Bitzer the sheepdog are thrown in jail, where they land near a Hannibal Lecter-like cat in a neck cone, as well as a mad dog literally giving them the mad dog, never fails to crack me up on repeated viewings, whether I’m alone or with my daughter.

But will Americans actually pay to go and see Mark Burton and Richard Starzak’s Shaun the Sheep, which opens Wednesday, August 5? On the surface, it seems to have everything Americans love most about animation: A host of anthropomorphized animals outwitting their human counterparts through a series of deft escapades, publicly embarrassing behavior, and help from outcasts like new arrival Slip, a goofy-looking dog with a big brain who helps Shaun and his lost flock navigate the big, bad city. Overseas, the film has already logged almost $60 million in receipts, and spawned public art installations along a growing series of Shaun-themed trails throughout the UK.

So why doesn’t Aardman’s distinctive brand of intelligent humor seem to translate stateside at the box office? Can Americans handle a film in which no one speaks? Help us find the disconnect before Shaun the Sheep lands.

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