Fleece and quiet
Silent-screen comedy makes a triumphant return in Shaun the Sheep Movie. Surprising as it may seem, what this droll, sweetly hilarious movie resembles more than anything else—more than any of Aardman Animation Studios’ previous features (Chicken Run, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, etc.), more even than the Wallace and Gromit short A Close Shave, from which the Shaun the Sheep cartoons spun off—is a Buster Keaton movie.
Keaton was famous as the Great Stone Face of silent pictures. But as a critic aptly noted, what distinguished Keaton wasn’t expressionlessness, it was “an extreme economy of expression,” where the tiniest movement of an eyebrow or cheek muscle could convey volumes of unspoken meaning. That same economy distinguishes the stop-motion figures here, and the more immobile the face, it seems, the more subtle the message it conveys.
The basic premise of the TV version of Shaun the Sheep is familiar to audiences of children the world over. The cartoons take place in the north of England on Mossy Bottom Farm, presided over by a balding, redheaded farmer and his loyal, longsuffering dog Bitzer. Among the livestock is a small flock of sheep and their de facto leader, Shaun.
The animals’ adventures spring from their efforts to inject some fun into their lives; complications arise when things inevitably get out of hand and Shaun (usually with the connivance of his frenemy Bitzer) schemes to return things to normal without arousing the farmer’s suspicion. The cartoons eschew dialogue, the only vocals we hear being chuckles, grunts, sighs, mutters and other such vocal sound effects.
The framework is also ideally suited to the standard eight-minute format of classic cartoon shorts. And it’s one of the miracles of Shaun the Sheep Movie that writer-directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak have been able to turn their half-hour series into an 85-minute feature without the results looking or sounding padded out. When you consider that a depressing number of modern animated features seem to have been wrung out of mediocre ideas for cartoon shorts (the Rio and Ice Age franchises spring drearily to mind), the word “miracle” hardly seems to cover what Burton and Starzak manage to do here.
Shaun’s original plan here is to give himself and the other sheep a day off by making the farmer believe he’s still asleep and dreaming—entailing a complicated Rube Goldberg riff on the concept of “counting sheep” that’s a little masterpiece of hilarity all by itself.
Things backfire when a crack on the noggin and a runaway RV strand the farmer in the Big City (i.e., London) with a case of amnesia. Along with his memory, his farm skills have deserted him. All but one, that is: sheep-shearing. This ability soon helps this mysterious visitor to the city build a career as a barber to the stars.
Meanwhile, Shaun and Bitzer lead the flock off in search of the lost farmer, hoping to restore order and wrest control of the farm from the greedy pigs who have taken over in the farmer’s absence.
Throughout its modest length, Shaun the Sheep Movie never loses its ingenuity and visual focus. There’s a purity to its comedy of a kind that we’ve seen but rarely since movies learned to talk.