In Praise of Bitzer, A Very Good Dog

The animated patron saint of people who would just like to do their job.

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t find Shaun The Sheep utterly charming. Certainly I would count myself among that number as I consider the show – and its movies – just wonderful. They are gentle, sweet, funny, simple and wholly entertaining in a way not many properties are. It never gets too ambitious but always knows exactly what it is and who it’s made for.

While the title sheep gets much of the attention as the focal point of the action, we need to take a moment and consider just how vital a supporting character is to what happens in each episode and how much he has to offer each story.

We Gather Together to Celebrate Bitzer

It may seem at first as if Bitzer, the canine companion of The Farmer, is the antagonist in the world of Shaun The Sheep. He is, after all, the one responsible for making sure the sheep and other animals on the farm are doing what they’re supposed to and not getting into trouble. So he is often doing his best to wrangle the sheep away from whatever shenanigans they’re involved in, whether it’s hanging out with aliens to accidentally starting a pizza delivery service.

But Bitzer is, in this reading, profoundly misunderstood.

He has been given a job – or jobs – by The Farmer. Sometimes that involves herding the sheep for a bath. Sometimes it involves remodeling the barn on the property. Many of these are jobs one wouldn’t expect a dog, even one as anthropomorphized as Bitzer – to be able to perform.

Yet in each case, no matter how crazy the request might be, Bitzer gets to it. He paints, he builds, he signs for packages. He does it all.

More than anything else, though, he relies on his trusty clipboard. It is his foundation, the focal point of all he has in front of him. Checking things off his To Do List on that clipboard is seemingly what brings Bitzer the most joy as he feels the satisfaction of a job done, and done well.

In this way he is among the most relatable characters in popular fiction.

Bitzer just wants to do his job and go home at the end of the day. He would like the approval of his boss. He wants to check his responsibilities off his list and insure everything is lined up as it should with a minimum of hassle.

If that’s not something we can all get behind, I’m not sure what is. How many of us just want the workplace hijinks to calm down so we can get our job done? How many of us just want a single day to be simple and easy instead of filled with terrifying circumstances involving having to dodge the boss, cover up for our less-disciplined coworkers, and do twice as much work as necessary because Carl over there decided to take everyone out for “brainstorming” coffee 30 minutes before the presentation was due?

What’s even more amazing about Bitzer is that while he may growl and make liberal use of his whistle to get the sheep, pigs and chickens back in line he never really works against the others on the farm. Shaun and the others aren’t trying to get Bitzer in trouble, nor are they working actively against him. It’s just that sometimes they’re version of what needs to be done doesn’t jibe with his.

It’s not an antagonistic relationship on the farm, then, just one of competing priorities. And while Bitzer may sometimes seem like the heavy, he shouldn’t be judged solely on his role as the enforcer of the rules. He’s just a very good dog trying to do a very good job who deserves to be praised.

Celebrate Shaun The Sheep GIF by Aardman Animations - Find & Share on GIPHY

Shaun The Sheep: Farmageddon – Movie Review

So many of the modern movies ostensibly meant tor young kids or labeled as being “family” or “all ages” films aren’t really appropriate for all ages and aren’t going to be interesting to every member of a family. The same can be said for a good number of the shows and series also bearing those or similar labels. Either the humor is overly crude and offensive, the script is stuffed with pop-culture references that will fly over the heads of kids and be dated five minutes after the first screening, or it’s so kinetic it actively impairs the brain’s ability to process information.

A notable exception to that is Aardman Animation’s “Shaun the Sheep” series. Set on a Scottish farm, Shaun is the most precocious of the sheep under The Farmer’s care. He and the others are corralled by the very good dog Blitzer, who simply wants them to follow the rules.

Originally a series airing on the BBC, there’s been one feature length film already and now a second, A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, is available on Netflix in the U.S. after a theatrical release in the U.K.

The plot is just as simple as what’s often found in an episode of the series. Things are relatively quiet on the farm save for the hijinks that Shaun is instigating, which never gets more serious than wanting to score some ice cream from a passing delivery truck. Out of the sky comes an alien, which sets off a series of events that has Shaun and his friends tangling with a government agent hunting extraterrestrials, helping to repair a broken spaceship and building an outer space theme park on the farmer’s land.

Because of the nature of the movie’s story there are a number of subtle nods to sci-fi genre touchstones such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, “Doctor Who” and others. None are so overt as to generate the kind of cheap, guffawing laugh that is the stock and trade of many animated features. No one does a Spock impression, for instance. The appearances of a TARDIS and a few other references are simply there and then they’re not, the writers and directors opting not to underline the joke, unlike some of their Hollywood peers.

With characters that never speak intelligibly it falls to the physical direction of Will Becher and Richard Phelan to convey not only the action but the story. In all the Shaun stories that means lots of sight gags, though never any that rise to the level of anyone being seriously hurt in any way. And even more rewarding than the sci-fi references are those to the long tradition of cinematic physical comedy.

In particular is a scene that is explicitly pulled from Charlie Chaplin’s classic Modern Times. It’s not there as a quick gag, and the character who finds himself winding through the gears of a giant machine isn’t wearing a mustache to make the reference clear. It just happens and is the more wonderful for it.

With so much going on in the world, taking an hour and a half to watch the gentle humor of A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon is good for what ails you. It’s just the kind of calming entertainment that’s greatly needed at the moment. It also uses the history of film and media with a sense of respect instead of exploitation, wanting to build on what’s come before instead of merely borrowing (or stealing) from it.