‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ Offers a Quieter But Still Satisfying Summer Animation Alternative

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shaunEven after 100 short adventures that made him a flock star (sorry) around the world, it seems Shaun the Sheep just isn’t destined to catch on in America. That’s a shame, because Shaun the Sheep Movie, the character’s first feature-length adventure, is pretty wonderful.

For the uninitiated, Shaun (voice of Justin Fletcher) is a preternaturally clever sheep who lives with his flock on the idyllic but dull Mossy Bottom Farm. Basically happy but forever bored with their bucolic life, Shaun and his pals often set out to shake things up a bit, usually to the chagrin of the Farmer and his sheepdog Bitzer (both voiced by John Sparkes). Their adventures are generally of the minor sort that can be resolved in seven minutes—retrieving a baby sheep’s pilfered teddy bear, for instance, or mistaking a set of bagpipes for an ailing emu and trying to nurse it back to health.

To fill up 85 minutes, though, Shaun’s shepherds at Aardman Animations—the studio behind Wallace and Gromit, of which Shaun is a spin-off—must get him off the farm. All Shaun really wants is a day off from his farm routine, but his plan to lock the sleeping Farmer in a trailer for a day goes awry when the trailer hops its wheel chocks and rolls into the nearby Big City. Farmer takes a bump on the head and ends up in the hospital with amnesia, leaving Shaun and his compatriots to fend for themselves on the farm. They’re not quite up to the task, so Shaun and his fellow sheep must trek into the city to retrieve their human, who has valuable managerial skills and, most importantly, can reach their feed.

Like the long-running British TV series that laid the groundwork for it, Shaun the Sheep Movie completely eschews intelligible dialogue; the characters communicate in grunts, growls, and verbal hiccups, but never is so much as a sentence spoken. The task of telling the story and getting the laughs often falls squarely on the shoulders of the animators, who render Shaun’s characters and surroundings in Aardman’s signature, chunky stop-motion style. They create an incredibly textured, tactile world. I usually forget I’m watching a movie in 3D by somewhere around the 10-minute mark; with Shaun, it took me about that long to forget that the movie isn’t in 3D.

But it’s not just the technical and artistic prowess on display that makes Shaun such an entertaining watch. There’s no clever wordplay to fall back on when the story drags—which it does, briefly, on a couple of occasions—so directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak pull out all the stops in the movie’s impeccably staged slapstick comedy sequences. There are literally thousands of moving parts, and the sight gags are rapid-fire. A few are lobbed squarely at the tyke crowd—look, butts!—but most of the film’s laughs are products of the Jacques Tati school of flawless timing and choreography. Even the pop-culture references, including a brilliant riff on The Silence of the Lambs and nods to The Night of the Hunter and Taxi Driver, are clever and funny.

Like its title character, Shaun the Sheep Movie has a heart that’s as finely tuned as its funny bone. The story’s antagonist is a dogcatcher (sheepcatcher?) named Trumper (voice of Omid Djalili), so steel yourself for a subplot involving a crowded animal shelter and a mangy, snaggletoothed stray mutt who longs for a family. Even the opening sequence, which sees a baby Shaun frolicking with a young Farmer in a home movie that freezes into an old, forgotten photograph, is kind of a heart-tugger. Everything works out fine, though.

Compared to other animated films of the summer, Shaun the Sheep Movie will inevitably feel like a quieter, smaller affair, and it is—but that’s a big part of its appeal. Even when the story stalls, there’s always something nice to look at, and there’s humor and warmth to spare. υ

April Snellings is a staff writer and project editor for Rue Morgue Magazine, which reaches more than 500,000 horror, thriller, and suspense fans across its media platforms. She recently joined the lineup of creators for Glass Eye Pix's acclaimed audio drama series Tales from Beyond the Pale, an Entertainment Weekly “Must List” pick that has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

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