Reeling it in: ‘Shaun the Sheep’ one to count on

“Shaun the Sheep”

Lionsgate

1 hour, 25 minutes

This week’s film may not sound familiar to some, but for me and my family, it was a cozy affair. For nearly as long as they could handle the remote, my kids have been snuggling up with my wife and I on rainy mornings and lazy Sundays to watch the British animated series “Shaun the Sheep,” created originally by Nick Aardman, the genius behind “Wallace & Gromit,” and other similar claymation creations.

The series, a collection of dozens of ten-minute long episodes, relates the adventures of the titular sheep Shaun and the rest of herd as they go about their rather unusual lives on a farm in rural England. What makes the show unique, however, is not the wacky humor or even the claymation style, impressive though it is, but rather the fact that in the entire series, there is not one line of dialogue. In a style reminiscent of “Wiley Coyote and the Roadrunner,” the narrative is entirely driven by the action and the music, the characters making various animal sounds or, in the case of the farmer, unintelligible mumbles and grunts.

I’m continually amazed at how well the style works in ten-minute chunks, but I was dubious about how well that would translate to a feature-length format. I needn’t have worried.

“Shaun” begins, unlike most of the episodes which open with a crowing rooster waking the farm for the day, with a flashback. The farmer, normally a grouchy middle-aged balding man, is in the prime of life. Shaun and his pal Bitzer, the sheepdog, are babies and the days are carefree, full of fun and play.

But when that familiar bird sounds the morning, Shaun awakes and realizes his youth is behind him. Bitzer sleepily comes to, gathers his whistle and clipboard, and waits for the boss to come down and begin the days activities. In the barn, the sheep are also waking, but as day after day goes by with no change in the routine, everybody starts to wear down.

Everyone just needs a break, so Shaun comes up with a plan. After distracting Bitzer, he arranges it so the boss will have to count the sheep as they jump over a low fence. Naturally this puts him right to sleep and Shaun and the rest of the herd carry the farmer to an old travel trailer on the edge of the property. They tuck him in and run off to spend the day lounging in the sun.

Unfortunately, the trailer comes loose from its chucks and careens down the road and off toward the big city, with a panicked Bitzer in pursuit. Nursing a guilty conscience, Shaun and the rest make their way to the city to find the boss, find Bitzer, and bring everyone home safe. That is, unless Animal Control has anything to say about it.

“Shaun the Sheep,” as an animated series, is always clever, funny, and manages to be sweet as well. It manages small moments of character development, but that is an aspect that isn’t always focused upon.

In the long-form, however, Aardman and Co. were able to really establish some relationships, especially between Shaun, Bitzer, and the farmer that we hadn’t seen before. I was afraid the format wouldn’t translate well, and a lesser movie, even an entertaining one like “Penguins of Madagascar” would have simply filled out the extra time with more and bigger examples of what the show already does.

However, “Shaun” allows itself to slow down a little, taking it’s time to establish not only the characters, but situations as well. Plotwise, it’s nothing particularly unique — it’s a dash of “Muppets Take Manhattan,” mixed with a bit of “Madagascar 3,” and a healthy dose of several “Wallace & Gromit” stories, but that’s not really the point. The point is to run the characters, the three main ones in particular, through their paces in order to bring them closer than the show was ever able to.

The movie is silly, funny, exciting, and also manages to throw some real emotion in there. My 5-year-old burst into tears at one emotional moment, and it’s not because she was scared or disappointed, but because the film engenders real empathy for the characters.

I’ll admit I wasn’t sure if “Shaun the Sheep” would live up to my expectations, and when the opening part of the movie moved slower than I was used to, I sort of thought that my fears were coming true. But as the movie rolls on and plot gradually begins to accelerate, I realized that what the filmmakers were doing was smart, bringing the advantages of feature-length to their quick, episodic product.

By the end, everyone was clapping, laughing, and cheering on the action. I know I’ve just expended nearly a thousand words, but my son summed it up best. “I know what my review is, Dad: Hilarious!”

Grade: A

“Shaun the Sheep” is rated PG for some very mild rude humor.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Niliski.

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