Movie review: 'Sheep and Wolves' (2016)
Sheep & Wolves (trailer) is an 85-minute Russian CG-animated movie that came out in 2016, also known as Волки и овцы (Volki i ovtsy). The writing and production took five years by Wizart Animation, whose earlier film had been The Snow Queen (2012).
Sheep & Wolves didn't quite break even at the box office, and received mixed reviews. After I watched it, I have to agree it's a middle-of-the-road film. It's not bad, it's not great - it's thoroughly so-so. On the positive side, the animation is good and very furry! But the writing... it's for kids aged six and above. There's not much in it to appeal to adults; it's what I call a "babysitting film". Plunk your tykes down in front of it and keep them distracted for a while. Still, I'd rank it a notch or two above Alpha & Omega.
So - we've got some sheep and we've got some wolves. The sheep live in a town with some level of technological sophistication. The wolves have recently moved into the area and live a more primitive lifestyle. The pack leader, Magra, intends to retire and unfortunately there are only two candidates to replace him. Ragear, a tyrannical bully, and Grey (our main character), who's an ok guy but also a clownish goofball. By tradition, they're supposed to fight each other to determine who will become the pack's new leader.
Grey is lucky enough to be courting Bianca, one of the best female wolves in the pack, but like everything else in his life, he's not taking her seriously. Fed up with waiting for him to change, she dumps him. Dejected, he comes across a travelling gypsy fortune-telling rabbit named Mami, who gives him a magic potion. Grey wants to change so that Bianca will love him again, and he does change - but into a ram.
The rest of the film involves Grey staying with the sheep and becoming friends with them as he grows more responsible. Tensions between the wolves and the sheep escalate. With Grey missing, Ragear bullies his way into having more control of the pack, without any respect for their traditional laws. Eventually it's an all-out conflict between the two groups, with Grey facing the possibility that he'll be stuck as a ram forever. Things work out in the end!
Character-wise, everyone's pretty shallow. Grey's a well-meaning goof, Ragear's an asshole, and each main sheep has its quirk. There's Ziko, who's smart but suspicious and disliked. Moz is a socially awkward guy who's also annoying in that he won't shut up (kind of like me) and doesn't know how to talk to the sheep he loves. Lyra's a kind-hearted ewe who runs a beauty salon and watches out for her impulsive younger brother who needs rescuing a couple of times. There's the pudgy sheep who likes eating, the superstitious sheep, the seagull who pretends he's a sheep, the hon hon hon arrogant French sheep, and a musk ox. None of the few female characters are especially remarkable. Towards the end of the film you find out that Bianca is not to be trifled with, but most of the time her scenes feel like nude blue wolf furry fanservice.
In terms of character design, the male wolves are very triangular with broad shoulders, narrow waists, and five-fingered hands (except for one of them who only has four). The sheep have a (slightly) wider range of designs. Most have short curly wool and smooth faces, some with horns or a bit of facial fuzz. Some are fuzzy all over, and all of them have three-fingered hands. I bring this up because when Grey becomes a sheep, the story relies on no one being able to easily recognize his former self (despite one character having before-and-after photos). Grey's fur pattern kind of reverses and he grows horns; his ears, tail, hands and feet change, and there's maybe a slight shift in his facial features.
There are also several rodents who show up very briefly - I wish the film had done more with them! If I hadn't known in advance that the gypsies were rabbits, it would've taken me a little more time to figure it out - they're lop-eared and hang their ears behind their heads. But really, despite my complaining, I really liked the animation in this movie. There were scenes with a lot of stuff going on and huge crowds, and it worked. Facial expressions, trees, grass, water, mountains, the special effects for when magic gets used... it was all good! Outright surreal in one later sequence. (You'll know when you go "What is that doing there?!")
I do wish certain scenes were a bit shorter. At several points, for comedic effect a character will become frantic and run around babbling - this was overused. Moz's socially awkward schtick was tedious, and unfortunately he's Grey's wacky sidekick for most of the film. I was rather irritated that while Grey's story arc is to become a better, less goofy person, Moz isn't held to the same standard at all. To my surprise though, in one scene Grey calls everyone out on their annoying characteristics! There's also a cheap fake-out near the end, plus one of those "If we let them die we're no better than them" scenes, and the dance party ending... is a Rickroll. In the English version, at least.
Speaking of language, even though the film is from Russia, it was animated to match English dialogue! In Russia, it was dubbed into Russian. (Except for the dance party which is synced to a Russian song, and isn't a Rickroll.) The English voice acting is ok; some characters are better than others. At many points I felt they were speaking too fast.
So overall, it's super-furry, well-animated, but the plot is very juvenile. On the bright side, no toilet humor! I don't think this is the sort of film I'd sit down to show to friends, but I think the tolerance levels for its furriness versus its plot are going to vary a lot from person to person. If you survived watching Alpha & Omega, you'll survive this, easy. It's got appeal for furry wolf fans, if you don't mind the sheep during most of it. (I'm tempted to edit my copy down to something more streamlined, which I would show to friends.)
Where can you watch this movie? ...Good question. My copy was a pirated one with the credits chopped off that I found on YouTube, but it's gone now. I'm not subscribed to any of the online streaming services to know if it's there. While searching online, it looks like it might have been released on Blu-ray and DVD in Australia? I am genuinely astonished by its scarcity. If you know of a reliable source where it can be watched or purchased, please post a reply!