The situations may not be as wildly imaginative as they usually are in the Wallace and Gromit films, including the feature-length The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, but this sweetly silly little-sheep-in-the-big-city cartoon has generous lashings of Aardman Animations’ trademark warmth, visual inventiveness, and satisfying Claymation tactility. Settings, machines, and props are always finely detailed, down to the texture of a painted wall, while faces and bodies are highly stylized and exaggeratedly expressive. And the fixes the characters get into are always endearingly goofy.
An opening montage that’s all rhythmic sounds and movements timed to cheery background music establishes the comfy but predictable routine that defines the existences of Shaun the sheep and his barnyard buddies. It’s a lovely life on a small family farm, overseen by a benevolent farmer and punctuated by nothing more traumatic than the occasional shearing. But the clever and ambitious Shaun decides he wants a break, so he organizes a vacation trip with his ovine pals to, as the road signs say, “The Big City.” There they experience a series of benign mishaps and adventures. Taken individually, each of these has its charms, but it’s difficult to sustain the suspense in a series of near misses punctuated by the occasional moment of tenderness in sunny children’s movies like this one, when you know nothing bad will ever happen to anyone except for the villain, who has it coming in spades. As a result, Shaun the Sheep Movie feels a bit long even at just 85 minutes.
The animals often indulge in the kind of harmlessly impulsive misbehavior that little kids specialize in, wreaking havoc in a fancy restaurant or making a mess of the farmer’s house when he’s away. But if slapstick or burp and fart jokes aren’t for you, you’ll find plenty of other kinds of humor here, like the way the sheep lull the farmer to sleep by jumping over and over a gate, or the Adopt a Stray day at the animal shelter where the sheep and their dog pals temporarily find themselves, which ends with a triumphant iguana blowing raspberries at all the other dejected, rejected animals as its new owners carry it home.
With grunts, muffled laughs, and other sounds replacing human speech, and with most of the action involving animals that communicate in bleats, barks, and the occasional chalkboard diagram (Shaun, the group leader, sometimes lays out his plans in the form of an elaborate drawing or a pantomime), this is essentially a silent movie in the Buster Keaton/Harold Lloyd tradition, a series of highly kinetic, sometimes brilliant sight gags set to music. That formula works wonderfully in some scenes, like the opening montage and the frenetic destruction of the restaurant, which is scored by silent-movie-style piano music. It works less well when the animals are first introduced to the Big City, in a scene set to a song (Eliza Doolittle’s “Big City”) whose lyrics spell out what the characters are experiencing. But that kind of literal-mindedness is rare in this generally inventive and light-footed movie.