It takes a certain set of skills to tell a story solely through action, but that's a feat this engaging all-ages affair achieves.
It is with the grace and humour of the silent greats of years gone by that Shaun the Sheep, the stop-motion animation television series that started airing in 2007, makes its leap to the big screen. That might seem like a heavy burden for a property that started as a spin-off to Wallace & Gromit, not to mention for material considered more aligned with children than adults, but it is one the movie shoulders without any sense of strain.
Indeed, channelling the likes of Jacques Tati into an cheerful comedic onslaught, Shaun the Sheep Movie makes expanding its seven-minute long, chatter-free episodes to feature-film length look quite easy. Think slapstick, sight gags, puns, and in-jokes galore, whether playing with its farmyard basis or parodying the big smoke jaunt that follows. Think witty throwaway references to other features, an eye for satire, and more detail than most all-ages animated fare would even contemplate, let alone manage to mould out of clay.
Shaun (voiced by Justin Fletcher) and his flock of fellow sheep have led a happy life at Mossy Bottom with the farmer (John Sparkes); however even the most content of livestock dream of having a break from the daily grind. An ingenious plan later, and the woolly animals have engineered a day off, complete with their own way of celebrating. As luck wouldn't have it, their efforts to distract the farmer see him stranded in the city, sans memory, and taking on a new life as a hairdresser. Only Shaun, sheepdog Bitzer (also played by John Sparkes) and the gang can round up their human friend – if they can escape the villainous animal catcher (Omid Djalili) intent on putting them behind pound bars, that is.
It takes a certain set of skills to tell a story solely through action, and to engage viewers in a narrative unspooled with visuals rather than dialogue, with writer/directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak giving these typically rarely-needed talents a thorough workout. The former's experience on Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit clearly assists, though each makes their filmmaking debut. They do benefit from the charming existing series as a starting point, of course, but their vision of Shaun the Sheep Movie is a joyous creation that understands how to relate its longer tale.
A number of skit-like scenes stand out in the feature that results, including seeing the flock donning clothing and causing mayhem in a restaurant, and masterminding a jailbreak. The film is more than just a collection of anarchic sequences, though, gelling together over its 85 minutes as an entertaining whole. As set to the sounds of mutterings and grunts as well as a soundtrack of upbeat tunes, the flow of the narrative bobs and weaves through ample antics and more meditative moments. The visuals always steal the show, courtesy of a heightened everyday world and Aardman Animations' wealth of experience. Who needs words when expressions, gestures and delightfully intricate backgrounds can be so comically compelling?
Shaun the Sheep Movie not only demonstrates the affection and flair that can stem from hailing back to the earliest days of cinema, but another significant feat – that there's plenty of life left in the family film genre for audiences young and old. Traversing the same path as the similarly endearing Paddington late last year, it proves that broad appeal doesn't have to equal over the top scenarios, celebrity voicework and dated pop culture tie-ins. Sometimes, the simplest things are the sweetest, such as a sheep just trying to reunite with his owner.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Shaun the Sheep Movie
Directors: Mark Burton and Richard Starzak
UK / France, 2015, 85 mins
Release date: March 26