Not to be confused with “Shaun of the Dead” (although a movie about ovine zombies seems oddly appealing), Aardman Animations writer/directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak’s “Shaun the Sheep Movie” features the title barnyard hero of the CBBC series that since 2007 has grown into a worldwide hit — though not, apparently, in the United States. This ingenious, touching, and very funny stop-motion frolic might correct that.
Actually, in one sequence, Shaun and his flockmates do indeed look more like revenants than ruminants. Which might be intentional, as, in typical Aardman style, the film is filled with subtle and not-so-subtle movie allusions (including the best “Silence of the Lambs” joke ever). But these pop-cultural referents aren’t gratuitous and glib. They don’t detract from the purity of a work that returns to the basics of film — objects, motion, and sound. Like a great silent movie, it creates its pathos and comedy out of the concrete objects being animated, building elaborate gags involving everyday items transformed into Rube Goldberg devices that sometimes entrap the characters, or, when properly manipulated by them, provide a means of achieving their goals.
Shaun — “voiced” by Justin Fletcher, though all the dialogue, including that of humans, consists of perfectly intelligible grunts and mumbles, as in a Bill Plympton film — faces the same problem we all do: the evanescence of joy and the depredations of time. In the opening credit sequence, we see him in his lambhood cavorting with the Farmer (John Sparkes), along with the other lambs and the puppy Bitzer (John Sparkes again) as a peppy cassette plays. A picture is taken of the group, radiant with happiness.
But then a cut is made to the photo grown old and dusty. The Farmer has lost most of his ginger-colored hair, Bitzer has soured into a martinet disciplinarian, and life has become a routine. Shaun misses the magic of being a kid — or rather a lamb. So, as animals have done in similar stories such as “Animal Farm” and Aardman’s own “Chicken Run,” they rebel against the regimen. Shaun and his pals plan to escape for a fling in the Big City.
The scheme — one of many that grow increasingly more complicated, preposterous, and hilarious — backfires when the Farmer gets a blow to the head, loses his memory, and ends up in the hospital only to . . .
In short, one of the weaknesses of previous Aardman films has been that they seem to go on too long. This one doesn’t seem to go on long enough. And though “Shaun,” like all movies made for children, must reiterate the obligatory values of family and responsibility, it does so in a scene of tender melancholy that adds to laughter the wisdom of tears.
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