Few would have expected, after debuting in classic stop-motion caper A Close Shave (1995) alongside claymation chums Wallace and Gromit, that a plucky young sheep would be headlining his own big screen gig two decades later. Shaun has become an ovine world-conqueror these past eight years in his own wildly popular TV series which has seen his appeal go global (he delights in over 180 countries, no less) thanks to his dialogue-free brand of universally accessible – and hilarious – mayhem. The Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015) follows the path of least resistance, a feature-length episode that ups the ante and will appeal to audiences young and old with its knockabout British charm.
After Aardman’s far-flung escapades in their previous two films – Arthur Christmas (2011) and The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (2012) – this is a concerted return to the quaint and quintessentially British sensibility, and locales, that the studio have always realised so beautifully. Both ‘the Big City’ and the now familiar Mossy Bottom farm are crafted with painstaking care and attention, and the troupe of players imbued with their typical exquisite character. From their lop-sided cud-chewing mouths to the fingerprints still fresh and visible on their plasticine noses, Shaun and his unruly flock are up to their old tricks again. The action begins with some home video footage chronicling the the protagonist’s idyllic lambhood alongside the puppy Bitzer and the youthful and loving Farmer in their bucolic home.
This is quickly followed by a chucklesome montage of the repetitive mundanity of their modern lives on the farm before Shaun hatches a plan to give him and his pals a day off. These two sequences combine to set the tone for what is to follow, a warm-hearted and gently comic yarn that plays to the slapstick stylings of silent cinema whilst throwing in plenty for the adults to chortle at. The Wallace and Gromit dynamic of half-witted human and practical pet is recycled in Farmer and Bitzer with Shaun’s antics a source of consternation. Events take an unfortunate turn, however, when Farmer receives a bump on the head and ends up in the Big City with amnesia; it prompts Shaun, Bitzer and the flock to go in search of him. Much madcap fun ensues with runaway caravans flying through the streets, animals marauding around the unattended farm and a healthy dose of toilet humour to keep the kiddies in hysterics (a little girl exclaiming with delight that “He landed in poo!” was a particular highlight of a recent preview screening).
Accompanying grown-ups meanwhile will be kept entertained by the antagonistic pigs who nod towards Animal Farm, a cat in the Big City pound who models itself on Hannibal Lecter, or the knowing pokes at celebrity and ‘cool’ culture centred around a swanky hairdressers. Of course, all of these are just the woolly padding, though, and directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzack careful not to lose sight of their star. Shaun is as loveable as ever, with his mannerisms a shining example of Aardman’s unending skill in the subtlety of expression alone. Whether he’s looking after his cousin Timmy, befriending a mongrel stray, or bribing a duck to aid in his latest scheme, he’s the endearing core of a film that is bound to delight.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson