Even the opening Aardman logo here is lovely. Retooled to give it a sheepy flavour, you’re quickly assured that the craft, diligence and attention to detail that’s enriched every Aardman movie to date is firmly in place with Shaun The Sheep.
This is the firm’s fourth full-length stop motion feature, following Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit and The Pirates!, and – in spite of some stylistic similarities – Shaun The Sheep is a little different. For two reasons.
Reason one is that it overtly aims younger than Aardman’s features to date. Whilst you still get the little touches (and plenty of them) that older viewers will appreciate – the Morph theme tune, a tip of the hat to Andy Capp, lots of things like that – this is more firmly focused on keeping the under 10s content. It will, too. Its appeal isn’t exclusive to smaller anklebiters, but they are the main audience for it, right down to getting Mr Tumble himself – Justin Fletcher- back in on noise-making duties.
Reason two is that Aardman has effectively made a silent movie here. Well, one without spoken words anyway. Just stop and consider that for a minute: a virtually dialogue-free comedy, for a family audience. The only utterances of dialogue tend to be nonsense mumbles, or the word ‘no’. Instead, what you get is a crafted – and craft really is the word – framework story that follows Shaun and his woolly chums, in the big city.
They end up there thanks to the film’s first, but not last, exquisitely-staged physical comedy sequence . It’s a Last Of The Summer Wine-esque calamity involving a sleeping farmer, a caravan rolling down a hill, and then a bit of amnesia. Then, armed with a Blue Peter badge and some of the best character animation you’ll see all year, the plot ventures into haircuts, a dab of celebrity, and an animal catcher. It all makes sense, without it needing to be explained the long way round.
Directors Richard Starzak and Mark Burton wisely keep things moving briskly, and they stage yet more quite brilliant sequences. There’s a tip of the hat to ‘Muppet Man’ that sees Shaun and his chums heading off to a posh restaurant at one stage, and their staging of comedy moments that rely on action rather than dialogue is terrific. It’s only afterwards that I sat and considered just how much sheer hard work must have been needed to realise all of this in such painstaking detail, to get the intricacies of the physical comedy spot on. Mainly because I was enjoying the film so much while it was playing.
Furthermore, Shaun The Sheep may well be the only film aimed at a young audience this year that owes a debt of gratitude to the likes of Buster Keaton. And that one sentence tells you a lot about how Aardman goes about its business.
Just because Shaun The Sheep is aiming for a younger crowd, it doesn’t mean the film dumbs down for them. In truth, there’s probably a less labour-intensive way Aardman could have brought this to the screen (just look at the collection of cartoons that appears to constitute a Peppa Pig release, which heads to cinemas around the same time). But it does things properly, and treats every member of its audience with due respect.
Shaun The Sheep may not generate quite the level of throaty guffaw that Chicken Run and Curse Of The Were-Rabbit in particular managed. Yet it’s both charming and quite bananas in pretty much equal measures, retaining a firmly British feel and boasting a queue of moments that already feel quite timeless and wonderful.
And a handy hint: don’t miss the end credits. Not just for the list of names of people continually committed to the glorious form of stop motion, but for some treats that Aardman has layered in there as well. A really classy piece of work this, and quite wonderful family entertainment.
Shaun The Sheep: The Movie is out in UK cinemas on February 6th.
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