Shaun the Sheep Movie is like curling up underneath a big cosy duvet with a steaming cup of sugary tea. Everything is precision engineered to enchant and amuse, dragging us into a paradise Britain fuelled by pleasant whimsy and running to clockwork comedy timing. From pastoral dale to bustling metropolis, this plasticine world (literally) bears the fingerprints of its loving creators. And at the centre of it all is a resourceful, brave and cunning hero: Shaun the Sheep.
The moment Shaun innocently padded on screen in 1995’s Wallace & Gromit: A Close Shave, a woolly star was born. A breakout success, Britain clutched Shaun to their collective bosom and the sheep became a minor pop culture phenomenon. His lasting popularity led to a spinoff CBBC TV show in 2007, which is now in its fourth season and has 130 episodes under its belt. It’s also broadcast in a whopping 180 countries and has even launched its own spinoff. From small beginnings, Shaun has become a worldwide phenomenon and now, quite naturally, he has his own movie.
Opening on a pleasant rural farm, we find Shaun and his sheep buddies bristling under a strict schedule, set by a slightly harried yet professional farmer. Pushed, prodded, sheared and fed dusty food, life has become annoying and repetitive, so Shaun decides to stage a mini coup d’etat. Lulling the farmer to sleep, they lock him in a caravan and trick him into thinking it’s night. While he snoozes, the sheep have a day off: raiding the fridge, making pizza, drinking smoothies and settling down in front of the TV.
But calamity strikes! The caravan rolls off down a hill, through traffic and right into the centre of the Big City. One bump on the noggin later sees the farmer suffering from total amnesia, only able to remember hazy memories of shearing… something? In his absence, the farm descends into chaos: pigs messily occupy the house, the dog is depressed without his owner and the sheep are unfed, unshorn and unhappy. Shaun – being entirely responsible for the situation – resolves to fix it, heading to the city to set the world straight.
It’s a simple narrative, but one that leaves a lot of scope for bizarre set pieces and deeply silly humour. Lost in the unfamiliar city, Shaun is soon joined by the rest of his flock, most of the best gags involving the surreal idea of animals (poorly) masquerading as humans. This leads to enjoyably preposterous scenes like the sheep eating in a fine restaurant, a sadistic animal catcher flirting with a ‘lady’ sheep or, my favourite, the bonkers absurdity of a dog disguising himself as a surgeon and subsequently being led to an operating theatre and handed a scalpel.
The knock-around slapstick style most obviously recalls Mr Bean, but Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd would also find much familiar here. This humour tweaks some fundamental human funnybone – the part of you that finds a man falling on a banana peel hilarious. The appeal is further underlined by the fact that the film is practically devoid of any language. We’re mercifully spared Shaun picking up an unwanted celebrity voice, as all the animal characters squeak, grunt and bark their way through proceedings, with the humans communicating in mumbles and groans.
That this is essentially a silent movie makes it truly universal, as it’s able to be shown without alteration to anyone, young or old anywhere on the planet. Communicating personality and motivation through body language is the bedrock of all good animators, but Aardman’s team host a masterclass in personalities. You only have to see these characters walk across the frame to understand everything you need to know about them.
Universal appeal shouldn’t be mistaken for blandness, though. There’s a pleasantly anarchic and quintessentially British undercurrent running throughout the movie. For example, I was surprised to hear Primal Scream (and later, Madness) on the soundtrack. There’s even blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em shout outs to John Cooper Clarke and The Fall, both of whom you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find referenced in a U-rated children’s movie. In addition, though the stop-motion medium is as old as cinema, there’s a refreshingly casual multicultural cast and an easy familiarity with social media throughout.
But, frustratingly, there’s a few flies in the ointment. 95% of the movie is blessedly free of commercial obligations; there’s no product placement, pop culture references or humour that’s there to rubbishly wink at adults. Then, mid-way through, there’s a whackingly crap contemporary pop song crowbarred over the top. It’s not film-ruining, but the intrusion of the ‘real’ world into this cosy little fantasy is unwanted and unnecessary. It’s the one time you can imagine some suit peering over the animators’ shoulders and giving them pointed suggestions.
In the end though, it’s difficult to imagine anyone disliking this film. The kids in the screening I attended giggled with joy at every silly fart joke (trust me, these are fart jokes of the highest calibre) and the adults chuckled at every sophisticated set-up and unexpected punchline. Shaun the Sheep Movie is thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, and it really does give you the warm fuzzies to see the plasticine and cotton wool of Aardman successfully going toe-to-toe with the shaders, polygons and physics simulations of latter-day animation.
Is there a safer bet than an Aardman film? Shaun the Sheep Movie delivers on everything we've come to expect from the studio, giving us a delightful animated flick that's great fun for all audiences.