Conventional wisdom may have it that sheep are dumbest of all livestock, but the woolly ones’ wits get a collective sharpening in “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” a sweet-natured but cleverly off-kilter feature-length debut for Aardman Animations’ plucky farmyard hero. Retaining the gentle, non-verbal comedy and daffy sight gags of the popular stop-motion TV series — itself a loose spinoff from Aardman’s cherished “Wallace and Gromit” franchise — while assigning Shaun and his flock an urban escapade more expansive than their usual short-form gambols, the film should reward small fry and parents jaded by more synthetic kiddie toons. Hot off the runaway success of “Paddington” in Blighty, Studiocanal won’t quite match those numbers with its latest family treat, but should emerge with a healthy three bags full.
Originally introduced 20 years ago in the Oscar-winning “Wallace and Gromit” outing “A Close Shave,” diminutive sheep Shaun has since headlined more than 100 miniature adventures for the smallscreen — each one cramming a complex degree of farce into a seven-minute running time, before returning affairs to a rustic status quo. In devising a feature narrative 12 times the length of any single episode, writer-directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak have wisely kept a number of the series’ formal restrictions intact. Most cannily and crucially, the film remains dialogue-free, with the animals communicating solely through expression and gesture, while human characters — not unlike the adults in various “Peanuts” films and specials — speak in unintelligible gibberish.
It’s a device that considerably broadens the franchise’s tot appeal. At a time when much studio animation is skewing older and hipper, “Shaun the Sheep Movie” (that missing “the” is itself a sly nod to the pic’s lack of verbiage) is thoroughly preschooler-friendly, though older viewers can appreciate its droll asides and dashes of silly satire. It also lends Shaun himself the absorbent, observant innocence of a Monsieur Hulot figure, albeit in a considerably fuzzier guise; he’s an endearingly ingenuous vessel for the pic’s choreographed-in-clay physical comedy.
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The film opens with a tightly rhythmic montage — shot Super 8-style — illustrating the cheery daily grind at Mossy Bottom Farm, where the flock is tended by a balding, nameless human farmer and his bright, put-upon sheepdog Bitzer. As in every episode, the animals seek an escape from the mundane demands of farm labor, this time ingeniously sending the farmer to sleep via a live chain of fence-jumping. The snowballing sequence of mischief that follows sees him accidentally transported to the big city (London in all but name) and losing his memory.
Naturally, it’s Shaun and his bleating entourage — ranging from super-sized ewe Shirley to helpless lamb Timmy — to the rescue, though it’s not long before they require rescuing themselves, with their arrival in town triggering unwanted attention from animal containment services. (By way of apparent homage, the pic is a happy reminder that the critical rehabilitation of “Babe: Pig in the City” is complete.) Meanwhile, their amnesia-afflicted master has stumbled into an unlikely new career as a celebrity barber to moneyed urbanites: The current vogue for severely undercut hairstyles isn’t a world away from sheep-shearing, after all. Complete with jabs at social-media marketing, this is one of the film’s few extended jokes likely to go over the collective heads of very young auds, but it’s the kind of absurdly exaggerated everyday detail — complete with the repurposing of familiar gadgetry — on which Aardman’s comic brand is built. Other in-built games for adults include spotting various throwaway references to considerably less family-oriented films, “The Night of the Hunter” and Scorsese’s “Cape Fear” included.
Though realized on a more modest scale than other Aardman features, the film is still an absolute delight in terms of set and character design, with sophisticated blink-and-you’ll-miss-it detailing to counterbalance the franchise’s cruder visual trademarks. (Every sheep’s mouth, for example, still emerges sporadically from the side of its face; no wonder they never speak.) Production designer Matt Perry deftly evokes the shifting, half-gentrified streetscape of London without resorting to obvious landmarks. Composer Ilan Eshkeri, taking a breather from scoring the more solemn likes of “Still Alice” and “The Invisible Woman,” contributes suitably jangly accompaniment, though assorted pop contributions on the soundtrack don’t quite mesh with the wordless story world at hand. (An exception, of course, is the series’ Vic Reeves-sung theme tune, here given a rascally makeover by British hip-hop duo Rizzle Kicks.)
“Shaun the Sheep Movie,” incidentally, marks the first collaboration between Studiocanal and Aardman, whose past couple of features were financed and distributed by Sony. Although the deal was initially made as a one-off, it’s not hard to imagine a film franchise emerging from this happy new pairing; the baa, as it were, has been set.