I don’t know about you, but spending ninety minutes at the cinema with a flock of claymation sheep is exactly my idea of a good time. Shaun the Sheep Movie is the latest feature-length production from Aardman Animations (the folk who brought us Chicken Run), and it is a delight. Borrow a young relative for cover if you must, but believe me, you are not too cool for a kid’s movie when it’s this much fun.
You might remember Shaun the Sheep from his debut appearance in the Wallace and Gromit short film A Close Shave (1995), in which he has several close encounters with Wallace’s Knit-O-Matic machine and is pursued by an evil robotic dog called Preston. Since then he’s become the star of the British children’s television series Shaun the Sheep, of which this movie is in turn a spin-off. If so much dilution sounds about as appetising as a juice drink (‘now with 10% real oranges!’), never fear. The film works perfectly well as a stand-alone creation.
Shaun and his woolly friends are restless. The routine of farm life (herding, grazing, shearing, repeat) is beginning to bore them, and a holiday beckons. They lull Farmer to sleep (these are sheep, after all), slide him into a caravan, and get ready to enjoy their day off. Then it all starts to go wrong – the caravan rolls away down the hillside towards the Big City, with Farmer sound asleep inside, and the flock (along with Bitzer the dog) give chase, only to find that the subsequent crash wipes out Farmer’s memory. The creatures are left wandering the mean streets, pursued by the villain Trumper, an animal containment officer. The farm is beginning to look like a lost paradise, now.
The first surprise of Shaun the Sheep Movie is that is has no dialogue. This makes it an easy film for even very young children to follow, but it marks a departure from the Aardman style. Creature Comforts, for instance, an early Aardman creation, matched vox pop interviews with members of the British public to various animal scenarios: cats on sofas, a bear on a vet’s examination table. The sound of those unscripted conversational cul-de-sacs (complete with coughs, pauses, and ambient background noise) in perfect sync with the claymation creatures is pure hilarity. And who can forget Wallace’s distinctive West Yorkshire pronunciation?
Witty use of pop music and sound cues make up for the absence of dialogue — there’s a lovely theme song which forms part of the plot and leads, naturally, to the appearance of a Baa Baa Shop Quartet, and to a few scenes involving a Walkman that will warm the heart of anyone old enough to remember how to use one. Though Shaun the Sheep Movie is not directed by Aardman founder Nick Park, as the original Wallace and Gromit shorts were, it shares the presiding Aardman spirit, which has been described as gentle (it is), but could equally be called wacko. Wacko and fastidious, for to watch an Aardman film is to revel in convoluted slapstick while simultaneously marvelling at the labour involved in forging it. I love the tactility of claymation, which the film never tries to disguise – you can see thumbprints on the figurines. Then there’s the incredibly detailed scenery, from a hospital to a charity shop to Trumper’s miserable animal pound (where a poodle lifts weights and a goldfish plays the prison blues on a harmonica), with every texture, from wool to brick to metal, rendered in perfect miniature.
Do Shaun and his flock make it back safely to the farm? Of course they do, and you’re shorn to have a merry adventure with them along the way.