Who needs dialogue? The new Shaun the Sheep animated feature proves that a wordless avalanche of cleverly conceived slapstick and sight gags can easily carry the day. The great silent movie comedians knew this, and this production from Aardman Animations (and StudioCanal) will occasionally remind older viewers of the likes of Buster Keaton.
But the film’s affable tone and broad, whip-quick humor can be savored by all ages. “Shaun the Sheep Movie” grew out of a series of TV shorts, and the filmmakers have retained the small-scale feeling while translating Shaun and his pals to the big screen.
The technique is pure Aardman: stop-motion animation involving Plasticine figures. The film begins in the usual Shaun setting, Mossy Bottom Farm in northern England. The characters are familiar from the TV show, a long-running spinoff from Nick Park’s “Wallace and Gromit” shorts – besides clever Shaun, the sheep include outsized Shirley, little Timmy (who had his own TV spinoff) and Timmy’s mother, who wears curlers. There’s also the somewhat obtuse Farmer and his bossy sheepdog, Bitzer, plus three obnoxious pigs.
As always, the animals sometimes act like people, and sometimes not.
Like in so many silents, the plot is joyously minimal. As the result of some zany antics, the Farmer winds up in the nearby big city, with amnesia, and a surprising new profession. Shaun’s gang sets out to rescue him, while avoiding a nefarious animal-control officer.
The movie could be studied as an encyclopedia of sight gags, most of which are well executed, if not entirely original (which won’t matter to small-fry viewers). The humor is aimed at the expected assembly of snobs, meanies and trendoids, and various movie and TV cliches. But the mood is genial and low-key instead of toxic. It’s the sort of comedy more likely to produce smiles and chuckles than horse-laughs.
A couple of set-pieces stand out. In one, the sheep, awkwardly disguised as humans, mimic the behavior of other diners in a snooty French restaurant, called “Le Chou Brule” (which translates to “The Burnt Cabbage”). And when some of the crew are locked up at the animal control center, they encounter animals that are parodies of classic movie cons.
Mark Burton and Richard Starzack, who wrote and directed, have mastered the art of adding the details – facial tics, grunts, gestures, bodily motions – that make comic animation stand out. Be prepared for a bit of potty humor, but it’s fairly tame. And if you know what a pantomime horse is, you’ll be tickled to learn that one figures in the plot. If you don’t know, what better chance to find out?