Every herd needs a leader — especially literal herds of domesticated animals. Aardman Animations’ newest creation, Shaun the Sheep (voiced by Justin Fletcher), is not only a bonafide television star (he’s starred in 130 episodes of his own television show, as crafted by the stop-motion animation house), but he’s now poised to make the leap to film as the star of “Shaun the Sheep Movie.”
Shaun’s bit is that he’s the smart one in a lovably goofy herd of English sheep, mostly happy animals who spend their days doing typical sheep things — lots of eating and bleating — while their caring Farmer (voiced by John Sparkes) keeps them all in line through the use of a highly coordinated schedule, as assisted by faithful sheepdog Bitzer (also voiced by Sparkes).
It’s an idyllic life, but that schedule is a problem, and when Shaun hatches a well-meaning plan (delivered through bahs and bleats and some impressively made drawings, “Shaun the Sheep Movie” features zero dialogue, though its story is easy enough to follow that even the littlest audience member will be able to keep pace) to take a day off from their regimented routine, everything goes almost immediately wrong. Shaun and his family succeed in lulling the Farmer to sleep — by way of a clever “counting sheep” gag — and bed him down in a seemingly stationary RV. Through a series of mishaps (it’s always a series of mishaps with Shaun), the RV shakes loose, flies down the road and comes to a stop in The Big City, where the Farmer is knocked out cold, ensuring some soap opera-styled amnesia that seems set to keep him from returning to the farm ever again.
So much for a day off.
The herd eventually makes their own way to The Big City (sure, it’s probably London, but it’s “The Big City” in Aardman parlance), determined to get back their Farmer. Trailed by a very upset Bitzer, Shaun and the other sheep are forced to contend with all sorts of problems and wacky happenings, most of them hinging on the ruthless bloodlust of a local animal control officer (voiced or, more appropriately, as no one talks in “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” grunted by Omid Djalili) and Farmer’s inability to comprehend why a flock of sheep are following him around. Despite the real stakes of the story, the film is consistently charming and very amusing, smart enough to appeal to adult viewers and gentle enough to keep kids happy.
Aardman’s flair for visual storytelling is particularly strong in “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” and the film makes generous use of pop cultural references (including nods to “Taxi Driver,” The Beatles and Hannibal Lecter), as well as the endlessly pliable faces of its characters and inventive gags that continually play around with the landscape at hand (a bit featured in the film’s trailers, which sees the flock posing against and seemingly blending into a country-set ad, is one of the film’s best) to tell a terrifically cute tale. Clocking in at a slim 85 minutes, the whole thing flies by quite pleasingly, a warm and funny feature that reasserts the value of high quality visuals and attention to detail.
Although it ably charms on the strengths of its darling stop-motion animation and its zippy humor, “Shaun the Sheep Movie” falls short in its attempts to shoe-horn in plot movements through the magic of song — specifically the use of British pop singer Eliza Doolittle’s (no, not that Eliza Doolittle) “Big City,” which provides a gratingly on-the-nose audio companion to a sequence that sees the sheep living life in, of course, the big city. The film’s visual storytelling is strong enough as is, and the inclusion of a modern pop song as a narrative device scans as a cheap and out of place bid to make the film feel more contemporary. There’s no need for that in “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” however, which is big-hearted and big-humored enough to stand on its own (four-legged) merits.
“Shaun the Sheep Movie” opens nationwide on August 5.