There are two animation studios putting out reliably first-class work today. One, of course, is Pixar. The other is Britain’s Aardman studio, which employs the venerable claymation technique (with some computer-based enhancements) in extraordinarily witty ways. The latest proof is “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” a wordless delight starring the wooly character that first appeared briefly in some Wallace and Gromit films before earning his own series in 2007. That show never made much of a dent in the American market, but perhaps this unfailingly charming and comically inventive feature will change that.
The plot is the old rubes-in-the-big city chestnut, except in this case the rubes are sheep. It kicks in when Shaun decides that he and his flock need a respite from the repetitive drudgery of grazing and shearing at Mossy Bottom Farm, so he plots to fool the farmer into sleeping through the day and sheepdog Bitzer into endless attempts to secure a succulent bone, so that the sheep can take over the farmhouse and have a jolly time. Naturally, the plan ends in disaster when the trailer in which the snoring farmer has been deposited rolls off into the city, with Bitzer in hot pursuit. And before the canine can catch it, it crashes, leaving the farmer hospitalized with amnesia.
After the house has been taken over by the three boorish pigs, Shaun decides to sneak onto a bus to the city himself, only to be followed on the next one by his entire flock, who quickly become targets of the movie’s villain, animal containment officer Trumper. To evade him, the sheep dress up as humans and get into all sorts of trouble before Shaun winds up in the pokey, along with Bitzer, who’s impersonated a surgeon while trying to rescue his oblivious master. Meanwhile the farmer, still not knowing who he is, stumbles into a job as a celebrity hair stylist, his skill at shearing the key. Eventually Shaun escapes, and he and his friends dress up in a horse costume to take the farmer back home. Unfortunately Trumper follows them there with a maniacal gleam in his eye. Of course, his malevolent intentions are foiled in the end, and all returns to normal at Mossy Bottom.
But it’s not the scenario that makes “Shaun the Sheep Movie” such fun—it’s the endless stream of inspired sight gags, pop culture references and warmhearted moments that stitch together what might have been ten or twelve individual series episodes, bringing the result to feature length. The humor is in many ways decidedly British—one joke involving protruding teeth is an obvious example—but without sacrificing universal appeal, and while tots should eat up the cartoonish goings-on (complete with a few mild scatological bits), adults will find themselves just as taken with the anything-goes mentality, which includes plenty of in-jokes directed to them rather than the kids (including references to a wide variety of movies and the inevitable “Abbey Road” allusion, done here better than you’d expect). Even the fact that there’s virtually no dialogue—the humans converse in muted-trumpet tones reminiscent of the adults in the “Peanuts” specials—makes everything hinge on the same sort of visual dexterity that marked the best of silent comedy.
Technically, of course, the movie has the signal hallmark of classic Aardman—the stop-motion tactility that even the best computer-generated animation lacks; and since it also obviates the need to use 3D to give a sense of depth, it also allows the colors to come through without the darkening that format imposes. In short, the picture’s visuals give off a jovial vibe matched by the genial grunts and groans of the voice cast.
This hasn’t been the greatest summer for kids’ movies. Here’s one you can take the children to in place of another afternoon at “Inside Out” and have as good a time as they will. It’s a bleating delight, right down through the closing credits.