The world of Shaun the Sheep puts a smile on my face before anything even happens.
It is presumably the same world that Wallace and Gromit live in, for Shaun is a spin-off star from the third Wallace & Gromit short, A Close Shave. If it is possible to speak of a stop-motion “Aardman-verse,” on the theory that Chicken Run and The Pirates! also exist in this world, it is a world with an irresistibly endearing, homespun charm: a lovingly crafted quality inherent in the very weathered surfaces of the planks of a chicken roost or the timbers of a pirate ship.
That charm is imbued in Aardman’s quirky, instantly recognizable character design: those tile-like teeth made for goofy grinning, the orby goggle-eyes and ropey molded hair. Above all, it is in the characters’ movements, with their pattering gaits and blinking reaction shots — all the outcome of countless minute interventions of an animator’s hand. (Somehow Aardman’s computer-animated efforts, Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas, despite an obvious family resemblance, are not quite persuasively set in the same world, and evoke the Aardman charm without fully capturing it.)
As much as I enjoy any corner of the Aardman-verse, there are two locations that are especially homey. One is 62 West Wallaby Street in Wigan, Lancashire, the home of Wallace and Gromit, with its cavernous basement workshop and the trapdoor between the stories that Wallace uses to slide right from bed to the kitchen table.
And the other, until now seen only on the small screen, is Mossy Bottom Farm, somewhere in northern England. When we first met Shaun in A Close Shave, he and his flock were off the farm, having been sheep-napped by a ruthless cyber-dog. It was Wallace who named the sheep “Shaun,” punning on “shorn” after accidentally giving him a shave.
Somehow the name stuck, at least in theory. When Shaun got his own TV series in 2007, the Aardman crew made the inspired decision that Shaun’s seven-minute escapades would all be written and filmed, like many of the best Pixar shorts, without dialogue, in the silent slapstick tradition — or, at any rate, with no more dialogue than the inarticulate mumbling of the Farmer, along with various bleating, barking, squealing and so forth. So all of the characters’ names — Bitzer the sheepdog, Pidsley the cat, Mower Mouth the goat, the little lamb Timmy and so forth — are theoretical, since no one on the show is ever actually called anything.
Shaun’s small-screen adventures are among the most universally accessible family entertainments ever created. The dialogue-free shenanigans cross all language barriers, and even tots with little skill in any language can generally appreciate the slapstick goings-on on some level. The comic sensibilities are decidedly British, but not as insular as Wallace & Gromit or other Aardman offerings. Shaun’s first episode involves a head of cabbage that Shaun starts kicking around until a game of soccer breaks out among the sheep. That’s something a 4-year-old in West Africa can understand.
The wordless appeal of Shaun and his mates is somewhat similar to that of Despicable Me’s babble-talking Minions, who also got their own feature film this summer — and who went to England and visited the big city, just like Shaun and his mates in this film. The two films even share at least one joke, an Abbey Road album-cover spoof depicting the characters in a row on a zebra crossing. (Did the Madagascar series ever do this with an actual zebra? If not, that was a major missed opportunity.)
But the makers of Minions never trusted their cast’s wordless charm, and supplied them with a large supporting cast of chatty human characters, not to mention Ian McShane’s narrator, who carefully explains the story in the early going during the 500 million years or so that it takes to get from proto-amphibians to modern humans.
The specialness of Shaun the Sheep Movie (or perhaps Shaun the Sheep the Movie, as press notes call it) is that it’s 85 minutes of wordless antics much like the TV show, though, of course, with a larger and more complex story. Pixar’s Wall-E went for long stretches without dialogue, with a Chaplinesque sensibility that evoked silent film, but Shaun the Sheep goes further. In 2015, the best non-Pixar animated film of the summer (maybe the year?) essentially is a silent comedy, albeit one with sound effects.
The movie opens with a nostalgia-flavored flashback introducing us to the Farmer as a strapping young bloke with a full thatch of red hair and adorable young versions of the animal cast (Shaun and Bitzer are no bigger than present-day Timmy), while a sentimental tune called “Feels Like Summer” establishes the mood. The point, of course, is that whatever tensions or tricks may go on between the flock and the Farmer or Bitzer, they all go way back, and underneath it all they really love each other.
And yet, in the present day, life on Mossy Bottom Farm has fallen into a rut. Every day it’s the same old routine — enforced, of course, by the Farmer and Bitzer — and Shaun, going a bit stir-crazy, comes up with a scheme to sideline man and dog long enough for the sheep to take a day off. Somehow, though, things get out of hand, and both Bitzer and his charges wind up in the big city searching for the missing Farmer.
That’s the premise; the payoff is in the countless throwaway jokes the filmmakers toss in along the way. One fleeting sight gag depicts the Farmer waking up and glancing, as he thinks, in the mirror, and smiling in vain approval at his remarkably dashing reflection. In fact he is careening in a runaway vehicle down a city street, and the image he sees is what happens to be outside the window. If there were dialogue, the Farmer might have murmured, “Looking good!” Why is the wordless version funnier? Perhaps because it forces us to pay closer attention?
It is amazing how sophisticated the storytelling is able to get without dialogue. At times it may seem curious that everyone, not just the Farmer, speaks in incomprehensible mumbles, but there is a simple explanation: The story is told from the perspective of Shaun and the other animals, who don’t understand human speech.
One of the funniest scenes is set in a posh French restaurant called Le Chou Brûlé (which the Internet helpfully informs me means “The Burnt Cabbage”), in which the sheep attempt, as they occasionally have on the small screen, to pass as humans. Some of the gags would work in a Mr. Bean routine, as when the sheep try to figure out the rules by surreptitiously watching other patrons; others are pure Aardman.
Other entertaining conceits revolve around a hospital, a swanky hair salon and a prison-like animal shelter associated with the movie’s villain: an ominous animal-control officer who seems to want to be a bad cop, but couldn’t make the cut. Both Bitzer and the Farmer find themselves in unexpected professional roles — one with startling success, the other not so much. And while kids will giggle at the rude humor, older viewers may laugh out loud at sly references to iconic movie scenes from the likes of The Silence of the Lambs and Night of the Hunter.
Even by Aardman standards, Shaun the Sheep has a modest, unembellished quality, with a simpler, more aimless story than Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit or The Pirates! Band of Misfits, and a purer claymation approach with less supplemental computer animation. (In one early scene, when someone leaves a fork in a microwave, electric arcs are represented by what looks like cutout foil lightning bolts.) Compared to earlier Aardman features, Shaun the Sheep feels like a rougher, lesser effort.
Yet there is a playful, warmhearted exuberance to the thing that is characteristically Aardman. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is a film that has been loved over, with none of the faintly desperate, money-grabbing floundering of Penguins of Madagascar or Minions. In the end you feel that you have been among friends, and the world seems a bit brighter. How many movies can you say that about?
Caveat Spectator: Mild rude humor and menace. Fine family viewing.