Stop-motion animation masterminds Aardman Studios return to the big screen for the first time since The Pirates! Band of Misfits this year with the exceedingly charming Wallace & Gromit spin-off Shaun the Sheep. British audiences are likely to already be familiar with Shaun through his television show, but for casual, American Aardman fans this is probably the first introduction to the delightful little sheep. As always, Aardman delivers fantastic stop-motion work here, but although their films are consistently entertaining, there’s something particularly special about Shaun the Sheep that makes it feel like their best feature at least since 2005’s Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Because the movie is largely a non-verbal affair, its success relies entirely on visual comedy that feels like a callback to the silent film era & it’s incredible just how much mileage it squeezes out of each individual gag. It’s going to be difficult to determine just what children’s attention spans will survive that kind of antique entertainment, but for adult animation fans it’s quite a treat.
That’s not to say that the film is at all stuffy. It’s far more smart than it is intellectual. For every brilliant silent comedy gag (such as a black market in which ducks are paid in bread or the strange idea of birdwatching as a form of sexual voyeurism) there’s just as much pedestrian humor to be found in plumber’s cracks, farts, burping, and public urination. Children & adults both are likely to share a chuckle or two there, but I doubt many tykes are going to catch on to the on-screen references to films like The Silence of the Lambs, Taxi Driver, and The Terminator. There’s also a plotline that poses celebrity culture & social media as forces that turn people into sheep for trends & fads that may be a little more adult than the kind of humor you’d find in Ardmaan’s (much less satisfying) Pirates!, but it’s a thread of thought that is somehow a lot more cute than it is cruel. Even if some children can’t connect with Shaun the Sheep at every single turn, there’s easily enough universally enjoyable positive vibes in the film’s pop music montages (which at one point include a bah-bershop quartet & beat bah-xing), plot-summarizing rap song at the end credits (something I genuinely wish more movies would bring back), physical comedy, and potty humor to keep a lot of them entertained.
The story Shaun the Sheep tells is perhaps its least interesting aspect. The fish-out-of-water tale of a herd of sheep traveling to “The Big City” (which is not too dissimilar to “The City” in Babe 2) to recover their lost farmer/caretaker/best friend leaves a chaotic path of destruction & an opening for a newfound villain in a heartless animal control bounty hunter, but nothing too interesting in the way of narrative invention. I’ve never seen the Shaun the Sheep television show, but I’m assuming that the urban landscape is a break from the daily drudgery of farm life portrayed in the series, since that’s how the movie version begins. For newcomers unfamiliar with Shaun’s traditional farm setting, the story is more or less a loose framework that provides a platform for Aardman’s genuinely amusing line of nonverbal humor. Shaun the Sheep is cute, smart, and thoroughly hilarious from front to end. No matter whether the movie inspires you to erupt into belly laughs or mild chuckles, it’s one that’s near-guaranteed to leave you with a positive feeling.