Four decades ago there was a Monty Python sketch in which Graham Chapman and Terry Jones discussed why a flock of off-screen sheep were hopping about on their back legs, attempting (badly) to fly, and doing something in trees that appeared to be nesting. It appeared that they had been led to believe that they were birds by Harold, who was, according to Mr. Chapman, that most dangerous of animals, the clever sheep. Thus, the idea of a clever sheep has been floating about the universe, finally finding a home at Aardman Animation with another, ahem, breed of smart ovines, SHAUN THE SHEEP. Based on the television series, it is a droll comedy of woolly manners in which our eponymous hero, and his friends, sheep and canine, learn that the grass in not always greener on the other side.
Shaun does not dream of flying, though he can walk on two legs if need be, but he does dream of escaping the overscheduled life overseen by kindly, if easily befuddle, farmer who takes care of them all on Mossybottom Farm. What begins as a small case of perfectly innocent kidnapping in order to see what life inside The Farmer’s house is like, takes an unexpected turn when The Farmer, lulled into a particularly deep, sheep-counting induced nap, accidentally zips off to The Big City when the trailer in which he’s dreaming away rolls downhill, followed quickly, but law-abidingly, by Bitzer, The Farmer’s loyal dog.
As the author of the mayhem, Shaun shoulders the responsibility of setting forth to find The Farmer on the (mostly) genteel streets of a typically British town. With his quick thinking, gift for devising alarmingly complicated plans, and talent for sketching, he wastes little time in getting started, aided and abetted by the street-wise Slip, a sweet stray dog with dental issues. Naturally, there are further complications. First, Bitzer runs afoul of an animal control officer with a mean streak and a fetish for police tape. Second, the other seven sheep decide to follow him, and none of them are particularly bright. Even by sheep standards.
Films with the Aardman stamp are known for their sly wit and gentle humor, and SHAUN is a shining example of that. For all the raucous, and beautifully choreographed slapstick executed with slick direction, the best comedy comes from the characters themselves in a story that allows for exquisitely hilarious small moments that are the equal, if not the better, of the bigger ones. There is a keen understanding at work here that while sheep scuttering through a chi-chi restaurant is a veritable cornucopia of comedic possibilities, there is something even more inherently funny, in allowing the camera to linger on a group of sheep staring straight at us while frozen in place by guilt. What propels all this cleverness, though, is that all these creatures have a complex emotional life and there is room for that, too, with the necessity of rescuing The Farmer being about more than just insuring that the home trough will once again be filled with sheep chow.
SHAUN THE SHEEP is rife with action, adventure, silliness, melodrama, and achingly wonderful puns, but it accomplishes all of this without ever uttering a spoken word. As an example of pure, completely captivating, visual artistry, it has no better, and few peers.