★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun is a sheep who resides, along with the rest of his flock, on a tract of country land run by The Farmer. It’s strictly a wool enterprise — not mutton — and Shaun should thank his lucky stars for that, but the grind is still getting to him: Wake up to the showboating crows of a rooster, comb his fluff, trundle out to the grazing lands, get bossed around by The Farmer’s dog Bitzer, and submit to a radical haircut every once in a while. There doesn’t seem to be any way out of his humdrum schedule, until one day Shaun is inspired by a vacation advertisement on a passing bus. That’s when he and his flock conspire to lock The Farmer in a trailer so they can enjoy an afternoon watching TV in the farmhouse living room. But when the trailer rolls down a hill, the flock must give chase all the way to The Big City, where an overzealous animal-control agent yearns to lock up anything walking on four legs. The whole adventure is told predominantly in visual gags, and while the street signs are in English, all of the characters speak in meepy, grunty utterances like Mr. Bean.
Shaun the Sheep is the latest effort from the British studio Aardman Animations, who first established their reputation for wry, carefully observed stop-motion tales with the Academy Award-winning short Creature Comforts (1991); they later earned a cult following thanks to the Wallace and Gromit stories (four shorts to date, as well as the 2005 feature The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) and the poultry escapade Chicken Run (2000). Judging from the smattering of computer technicians in the closing credits, the stop-motion animation here must have had some digital sweetening (especially for tricky effects like splashing water or items floating in midair). But for the most part, there’s a refreshing, weighty realness to the look of this film, from the knitted, quilted, and leather-crafted clothing worn by the human characters to the individual stones in The Farmer’s slate cottage. Even the occasional faint fingerprint on the clay of the characters’ skin gives the whole endeavor an honest, human touch.
The most charming part of Shaun the Sheep, however, is its laid-back pace. Family movies as of late have erred on the side of explosive and frenetic spectacle, and while that’s certainly one way to keep the kiddies entertained, it’s encouraging to realize that there’s still room for sly visual puns and understated silliness as a means to coax giggles out of young ones. While it earns its PG rating for “rude humor” on the basis of a few poo-poo jokes, no parent could otherwise object to Shaun the Sheep’s gentle and innocent charms, and they will appreciate the gags that are aimed at adult intelligence without being covertly smutty. This endearing piece of animated handicraft is the rare movie that’s legitimately “fun for the whole family.”