It feels strange to start a review without a quote from the film, which has been my schtick from the day I began writing movie reviews nearly five years ago, but there isn't a single word of spoken dialogue during the entire 85-minute running time of Shaun the Sheep. This may sound like a bold experiment, and frankly for an animated film aimed at children, it is a bit of one in the 21st Century. This, however, is what sets Aardman Animation apart from the other animation houses out there. From their very first Wallace and Gromit short films, Aardman has proven masters of blending physical comedy, non-verbal communication, and age old storytelling techniques presented in new and exciting ways.
For their fourth stop motion feature, and sixth feature film overall, Aardman has chosen to adapt their wildly popular Shaun the Sheep animated television series into a full length comedy film. The series has been on the air since 2007, and while it's infinitely more popular overseas than it is here in the States, thanks to Netflix and PBS, the show has gotten some play here. Familiarity with the series is not a prerequisite for your enjoyment of the film, however, as the opening credits do an impeccable job of getting the audience up to speed on the characters' backstories.
Shaun is a mischievous sheep who is always cooking up schemes on Mossy Bottom Farm, and one of his schemes involves putting the Farmer prematurely to sleep one day so that he and the other sheep can enjoy a day off for once. Through a series of events almost too absurd to put into words, the Farmer ends up becoming a chic hairstylist in the big city thanks to a bout of amnesia and now Shaun, the dog Bitzer, and all the other sheep must travel to the big city to get their Farmer back. To succeed on their quest, however, they must stay one step ahead of an ambitious animal control officer who seeks to imprison any unregistered animals in the big city.
To say that the film is lovingly crafted is an understatement. The amount of detail put into an Aardman production is second to none and the only animation studio to give them a run for their money in this department is LAIKA. The claymation is comforting to look at, and gives one the feeling that they're seeing real tender love and care being placed into the film's production. This is aided by the frequent sight of fingerprints on the characters' bodies, a visual treat that somehow never loses its appeal.
It's also an incredibly film literate endeavor with references to films like Night of the Hunter, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Silence of the Lambs. These gags somehow live comfortably alongside fart jokes, broad slapstick, and digs at celebrity culture. And yeah, it's all done without a single word of spoken dialogue, which makes it nothing short of a miracle that it all gels together as well as it does. The film owes debts to virtually every era of filmmaking from the Keystone Cops, the Chuck Jones-era Looney Toons shorts, and everything in between all the way up to present day.
It seems strange to qualify the film in this way, but this is a truly safe endeavor for children of any age. Once upon a time, my father thought it was a good idea to show three-year old me the caveman flick Quest for Fire, thinking that the lack of dialogue would make it easier for me to digest. The discussion for why that was a terrible idea is one for another time, but the same basic logic applies here. The visual gags are a wonder to behold, particularly those set up in the first act and paid off in the third. There was nothing quite so heartwarming as hearing peals of laughter from the children in attendance at my screening as they saw these bits paying off.
The voice work in the film is also top notch. Justin Fletcher has been voicing Shaun from the very beginning and he's able to infuse nothing more than a "baa" with an infinite number of meanings. There's also a hilarious cameo from bow-tied Aardman mastermind Nick Park, voiced by Park himself, for those who are savvy enough to spot it. Couple this with the typical Aardman musical beats like songs comprised of only whistling to popular songs like George Thorogood's Bad to the Bone or, even more surprising, Primal Scream's "Rocks."
Shaun the Sheep is nothing short of a miracle in this day and age. It commands the audience's attention from minute one, no matter their age, and never disappoints. The word that ran through my head throughout the film, and the one that sticks with me several days later, is adorable. Shaun the Sheep is an adorable film that uses conventions as old as cinema itself to enrapture an audience used to short attention span pandering. If you have children, you simply must take them to see this film, but I suspect that even those without children will be enraptured by its infinite charms as well. It is as close to perfection as late summer entertainment gets.
GO Rating: 4/5
[Photos via Rotten Tomatoes]