For a guy who doesn't speak and whose most memorable trait is an interesting haircut, Shaun the Sheep sure has turned into an enduring pop culture figure. The adorable little ovine first appeared in Aardman Animation's memorable Wallace and Gromit short A Close Shave, and was later given his own television series. 110 episodes later, Shaun finally makes his way to the big screen with the rather bluntly titled Shaun the Sheep Movie, and it's a delight: an 85-minute dose of good-natured slapstick, silly-but-inspired sight gags and lovely stop-motion animation.
Shaun's TV adventures are brief, charming bursts of gentle comedy that play like farm-themed riffs on classic silent movies. The characters don't speak, at least not in a traditional sense – they baa, they mumble, they grunt, they gesticulate and they point at signs, but they don't actually speak. The 7-minute length of the episodes perhaps invites comparisons to old Looney Toons shorts, but the tone is entirely different: Shaun's brand of comedy is witty but comparatively understated; closer to Jacques Tati or Buster Keaton than Chuck Jones or Tex Avery.
Most of the shorts can be described as “barnyard misadventures,” but the feature film brings Shaun, Bitzer the Sheepdog, The Farmer, Timmy the Lamb and the rest of the characters to the big city. All of the chaos begins with an accident that could only happen in a whimsical cartoon: The Farmer falls asleep inside a trailer, which starts rolling down the road until it reaches the city and crashes. The Farmer isn't seriously hurt, but suffers a bump on the head that leaves him with memory loss. Lacking any knowledge of who he is or where he lives, The Farmer starts a new life as a barber. So, Shaun, Bitzer and the rest of the flock must journey to the city and find a way to bring the farmer back home. Silly and contrived? Absolutely, but the simple plot is merely a platform for a series of wonderful gags.
One of the most entertaining stretches of the film finds Shaun and the rest of the sheep attempting to pass as humans, so they pull the old Little Rascals gag: one sheep sits on top of another's shoulders, and a combination of trenchcoats, dresses, wigs and mustaches are employed to help the sell the disguise. Their clumsy attempts to navigate through the city unnoticed produces a lot of clever sight gags, but the routine hits a high point with a scene in a restaurant in which the sheep awkwardly attempt to mimic another patron. Almost all of the laughs in the film are small, but there are a lot of them. The consistency of the not-bad jokes has a cumulative effect: the movie wins you over so thoroughly that you end up laughing out loud at moments that might not have induced more than a polite smile on their own terms.
Shaun the Sheep Movie is slightly more kid-centric than the bulk of Aardman's features (the emphasis on visual storytelling also means that younger viewers are likely to have a better chance of following the plot), but there's plenty for viewers of all ages to enjoy. The movie does a lot of things that children's movies do, but it does them more elegantly than most. There are pop culture references, but they're fleeting visual nods to things like the Abbey Road album cover rather than strained attempts at achieving instantly dated hipness. There are bits of visual innuendo, but they never feel like crass, obnoxious attempts to pander to bored parents. There are frantic action sequences, but they're beautifully choreographed bits of visually absorbing physical comedy rather than cheap attempts to energize the audience. There are even fart jokes, but they're surprisingly good ones – and there's a burp joke that's fairly spectacular. I won't spoil my favorite moment of inspired silliness, but I'll say that it involves a dog and a bone.
The stop-motion animation is on the simple side, but the characters are beautifully designed and the film is consistently lovely. This a such a friendly-looking universe, filled with rounded edges, open faces and handsome little sets. The colorful imagery is accentuated nicely by the film's upbeat soundtrack, which blends a number of breezy pop songs with an entertainingly diverse Ilan Eshkeri score. The music often serves as a form of narration for the film, and I enjoyed the way the film consistently found ways to make the soundtrack an actual part of the scene (at one point, a mournful cue features a downbeat harmonica solo from a captured animal).
What I like most about Shaun the Sheep Movie is that it successfully captures the combination of mayhem and understated charm that defines much of Aardman's best work. The studio's past three features – Flushed Away, The Pirates! Band of Misfits and Arthur Christmas – all have their merits, but it's hard to escape the sense that they're all trying a bit too hard to mimic the non-stop bluster of mainstream American features. This film never seems too hurried – it's entirely comfortable with its identity as a relatively low stakes delivery machine for a series of pleasant gags. Yes, the villain (the mean-spirited manager of a poorly-run animal shelter) is on the generic side, and the story's broad outlines are entirely predictable (the story isn't quite as marvelously loony as the one offered by Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit), but such concerns pale in contrast to the film's multitude of minor pleasures. This is pure Aardman through and through, and ranks as essential viewing for animation lovers.
Shaun the Sheep Movie
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 85 minutes
Release Year: 2015