Can a viewer die of excessive cuteness? That’s the most concerning question plaguing the otherwise adorable, slight Shaun the Sheep Movie, which does risk being cloying but mostly moves along with a wry smile on its face.
The latest feature from Aardman Animations stars Shaun, the bug-eyed lamb who made his debut in the terrific, Oscar-winning 2005 Wallace & Gromit short A Close Shave. As in his U.K. series spin-off which started two years later, Shaun doesn’t speak a word in his big-screen premiere, which means Shaun the Sheep Movie joins The Tribe on the list of the year’s most high-profile silent movies. (The comparisons end there, which will no doubt be a relief to the family audiences wanting to check out Shaun.) Writer-directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak sometimes strain to sustain the dialogue-free conceit, but one suspects they know that, even when the momentum flags, Shaun has plenty of cheerfulness and good will in reserves.
The film opens at Mossy Bottom Farm, where life is a bit of a repetitive drudgery: Every day, Shaun (“voiced” by Justin Fletcher), the Farmer (John Sparkes) and loyal dog Bitzer (Sparkes) go out with the rest of the sheep to do their chores. (The voice actors mostly make indecipherable noises for the animal characters, while the humans talk in gibberish that’s even less discernible than the garble spoken in Minions.) Hungry for a vacation, Shaun plans to make a break for the big city, but a series of accidents land the Farmer in the hospital with amnesia, only to be reborn as a big-deal hair stylist. (He can’t remember his former life on the farm, but he’s a demon with the cutting shears he once used on his flock.) Shaun and the gang go on a search in the metropolis to find the Farmer and bring him home.
Aardman remains a reliably lovable proprietor of stop-motion animation, the handmade quality of the work giving its films a winning modesty and chumminess. Matched with a very British sense of low-key comedy and deadpan visual wit, Shaun the Sheep Movie is a movie rife with chuckles, the humor rarely uproarious but always warm and clever. This is the sort of film in which a cow will be launched over an establishment named “The Moon” simply for the non-sequitur pleasure of it all.
But it’s not a coincidence that the company’s best films are its shorts. The perfect precision of a Wrong Trousers—a marvelously funny and exciting tale told in 30 minutes—reveals what can feel bloated in a feature-length effort like Shaun the Sheep Movie. Burton and Starzak don’t have much of a narrative thread to connect Shaun’s amiable comedic set pieces, which means that the movie lists a bit when it’s gearing up for its next sequence. At those moments, Shaun’s cheeky humor can come across as grating and time-wasting, the expert silliness losing its luster due to a touch of monotony.
In addition, as super-cute as Shaun is, it’s hard to forget that what made Wallace and Gromit such a dynamic duo was that, although Gromit didn’t speak, Wallace did, their back-and-forth funnier because one of the partners could only respond through silent looks of exasperation. Shaun’s solo act screams out for a comparably strong opposing force, which he never really gets in the movie. (The Farmer doesn’t share the screen with him very long, and Bitzer’s gruff, silent demeanor isn’t enough of a contrast to Shaun’s sweet, silent one.) Consequently, Shaun’s pleasures are a little more shallow and modest. To be sure, this is a far more nourishing and witty hors d’oeuvre than most kids’ films, but Shaun’s aggressive pleasantness may make you long for a little anarchic mayhem—or send you back to the ingenious shorts that made Aardman’s name in the first place.
Directors: Mark Burton, Richard Starzak
Writers: Mark Burton, Richard Starzak
Starring: Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes
Release Date: August 5, 2015
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and Vice President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.