The latest offering from England’s Ardman Animations made me laugh more than any other movie in recent memory. It’s a warm and gentle story, filled with genuine wit, sly jokes, and plenty of clever silliness. And, wonderfully, it’s (basically) a silent movie, and falls nicely in line with all the classic comedies of the silent era.
Set at a farm not too far from a big city, Shaun the Sheep Movie establishes that the routine of daily life for both animals and The Farmer is brain-crushingly rote — without any vacation time, either. Seeking a change, Shaun the Sheep plans a day off for his pals, first setting things up to keep The Farmer from waking up in the small trailer where he sleeps. The animals rejoice and have a fun time goofing off before things go wrong and The Farmer’s trailer ends up rolling down the highway to the Big City on its own.
Feeling responsible, Shaun sets off in pursuit, but before he can locate The Farmer, he is joined by some of his fellow flock-members, which allows for some hilarious attempts at disguising their appearance to avoid capture by Bitzer, an evil animal control officer. Meanwhile, The Farmer has tumbled from trailer to hospital to a hair salon, where his sheep-shearing technique meets with unexpected success. Suffering from temporary amnesia, The Farmer easily adapts to his new job and enjoys acclaim as the stylish and newly-named Mr. X.
Where does that leave Shaun the sheep and the rest of the farm animals? They look to be completely abandoned to dire straits when the amnesiac “Mr. X” fails to recognize them, but, realizing that they badly need each other, Shaun and his flock-mates — plus the formerly antagonistic farm dog — come together to bring The Farmer home.
Shaun the Sheep Movie works wonderfully well for children — I often heard squeals from delight by young ones at an advance screening I attended — and imparts family-friendly lessons without hitting anyone over the head. It’s easy enough to discern that Shaun and the animals are like children who dream of a comfortable life without the restrictions and discipline of their parents, until the dream comes true and they realize how much they need their parents. The Farmer doesn’t have a wife, so he also represents the single-parent head of household, who might dream of a life without the responsibilities and challenges of caring for children.
Again, however, those life lessons are part and parcel of the setup, and the movie never stops to lecture anybody. Instead, it’s absolutely jam-packed with mischievous fun, nearly every frame containing a humorous reference, with many nods to well-known films and TV shows. The movie’s handcrafted look is a refreshing change from the tyranny of computer-aided animation; the character designs also bring a fresh perspective to life on the farm and in the big city.
Most of all, Shaun the Sheep Movie is a delightful experience from opening titles through to the end credits, and is easily among the best movies of the year.
The film opens wide in theaters throughout Dallas today and is highly recommended.