Twenty years after his debut in a “Wallace and Gromit” short, Shaun the Sheep — a crudely drafted claymation creature with googly eyes and some woolly fuzz — gets his own delightful star vehicle.
If “Inside Out” proved once again that animated children’s movies can have as many ideas and as much complexity as any grown-up film, “Shaun the Sheep” illustrates that a big-screen adventure needs neither to succeed. Based on the stop-motion BBC series of the same name, “Shaun the Sheep” is pure diversion: a steady run of puns, slapstick and non-obnoxious pop-culture references with a dash of mild-as-milk satire. Refreshingly for children (but especially for adults), there are no lessons to learn and no faults to admonish. Instead, it’s an 84-minute, dialogue-free distillation of all the innocent fun we wish childhood could be.
A simple attempt to break up the daily routine snowballs into a grand and buoyant quest homeward: Shaun and his largely indistinguishable flock just need a day off from the daily tedium of farm life, as do the gentle but distracted Farmer and his loyal foreman, a timetable-obsessed herding dog who shows up every morning with a watch and a clipboard in hand. In a marvelously careening sequence, the sheep sidetrack the dog with an unattainable bone while jumping over a fence until the Farmer is hypnotized into sleep. They’re careful enough to draw nighttime on the window shades in case the Farmer wakes up in the trailer, but they don’t foresee the vehicle rolling off its stopper and speeding toward The Big City.
The animals follow the out-of-control trailer to rescue their owner, who’s nowhere to be found and has no idea who he is when he wakes up, though he feels a finger-tingling desire to shear. The city is even more afraid of the sheep than they are of it, and soon a maniacal animal-control officer makes it his mission to capture Shaun and his fuzzy friends, who dress up in people clothes but can’t quite figure out how to act human. Do they just chomp on the menu when it arrives, or is it more civilized to cut it up with a knife and fork first?
Writer-directors Richard Starzak and Mark Burton craft a satisfying if none-too-memorable tale out of Shaun’s attempts to restore the Farmer’s memory and get everyone back home before the sheep are captured by Animal Control. But the rush of gags — half of them expected, the other half rather inspired — justify the price of admission. None of the characters go out of their way to be funny either, and the lack of mugging cuts down on the cloying flop sweat that drags down so much other children’s entertainment.
When the characters do need to “speak,” they do so in pantomime or, occasionally, in articulate grunts that make their feelings altogether clear. There’s a surprising but substantial joy to be had from that respite from language, even when it necessarily reduces depth of characterization, which is why it’s unfortunate that the soundtrack’s off-brand songs — the production team’s one major misstep — clangs against the film’s fragile magic.
In a movie culture with near-inescapable CGI, old-fashioned animation like “Shaun the Sheep” is always a treat — and a romp this ambitiously aimless is an all-too-rare marvel.