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The Not-So-Silent Lambs

The flock of ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ have a way with(out) words.

One of the worst things about going to see children’s animation is being surrounded by kids. At some point, you’ll probably hear whining about not understanding what’s happening. So I was delighted when every child in the audience of Shaun the Sheep Movie seemed to magically understand ovine.

It was no great effort for the film’s viewers to make sense of what was on screen, because it seemed that Aardman’s filmmakers took great effort in giving the flock classical Indian dance lessons. In fact, I haven’t seen such expressive hand moves since Norma Desmond’s spiraling wrist punctuating her observation on silent movies, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.” The fact that her snide comment was accompanied by a dramatic gesture is key to understanding a basic fact of human communication (and most vertebrates, including the flock, as well).

Maybe I’ve invested more than what seems logically acceptable human-like intelligence on creatures that most in animal husbandry conclude are rather simple vertebrates. No matter. Humans and sheep share two fundamental behaviors:

  • We have multiple ways to communicate.
  • We are social creatures that follow our “flock.” (The fact that sheep also chew like certain members of my family is something else.)

Scientists studying language believe that between 70-80% of what is communicated when we speak is not directly expressed in words. It is conveyed in tone, hand and arm gestures, and what Ursula reminded the soon-to-be-voiceless Ariel in The Little Mermaid, “body language.”

Most of the youngest viewers in the audience were just a couple of years older than Timmy, the flock’s lamb. Humans start learning language -- using symbols to generate meaning -- before they learn to speak. They learn to associate babbles and random sounds with words, that they can move their hands to “tell” others what they want. In the same way that babies gesture before they speak, older children will draw before they write.

So it makes sense that when Shaun wants to explain his cure for the Farmer’s amnesia, he shows his plan as a drawing.  Every sheep and audience viewer seemed to understand the diagram. It took at least 50,000 years of evolutionary history to get humans to this level of engaging in complex problem solving, abstract reasoning, and symbolic language.

One of the best things about going to see great children’s animation is being surrounded by kids who are unaware that they are leaning about learning itself. I restrained myself from shouting out Aardman’s metacognitive lesson on how their target audience, and sheep, learn how to adapt to their respective pastures.

In one of the most touching scenes (to a cognitive scientist, anyway), the disguised sheep attempt to blend with the human patrons in a restaurant. When the waiter places menus in front of them, they interpret being served a menu literally, and begin to chew on them as if it was grass. Shaun, the brains of the flock, looks at the people, and realizes that they are reading - not eating - the menus. Timmy, in turn, mimics Shaun, and then the rest of the flock follow along, holding their menus like others in the restaurant. 

Neurologically, it took around 500,000 million years for the lateralized brain to evolve. Much research in a number of different animals – humans, other primates, dogs, birds, and sheep – explores the functional role of different brain hemispheres in animals’ behaviors or emotions.

One key area of cognitive research investigates which side of the brain is engaged in facial recognition. For social animals such as humans (and sheep), being able to identify friend from foe is key to survival. Scientists note that brain lateralization, in effect using only half of the brain, is quicker and more energy efficient than having the entire brain work at recognition.

Our brains are wired to recognize members of our own “flock” because, as social animals, we depend on them for survival, and will learn how to behave and communicate from them. We learn first from imitation, like Timmy. In spite of the human brain being wired to learn language, the particular language, how and when to use symbol systems, is socially and culturally determined.

That brings up a question regarding the free pass that dialogue-free animations seem to have. On one level, it appears there is no need for subtitles because words aren’t fundamental to understanding the movie. Everyone understands gestures, right?

But different cultures have different ways and words of thinking about the specific features of many abstract concepts we think are universal. For example, there are languages that don’t identify locations as being left or right, but North and South. There are languages that don’t identify nuances of emotions – a feature that Disney’s “Inside/Out” filmmakers encountered when trying to deal with the common German emotion of “schadenfreunde.”  And speakers in some languages point in front of them to refer to the past, while we (North American English) point to the past behind us.

So my question is how are young children in the global market, children not yet fully immersed in British culture, language, and gesture, going to understand the flock in the movie? Will all of the flock’s hoof work translate well?