All Shaun the Sheep wanted was a vacation, but what he got was an adventure. Adapting their British TV series into a film, Aardman Animations (“Wallace and Gromit”) has crafted a charming and delightful stop-animation film “Shaun the Sheep: The Movie,” a children’s film that’s pure joy — no trauma, no parents dying, no horror — where even the villain is clearly no intellectual match for Shaun the Sheep. This is a film that involves a sheep do-op group, an animal control worker who unknowingly falls head-over-heels for a sheep in women’s clothing, and a dog whose visit to the hospital involves a disguise so good (surgical scrubs) that he’s asked to perform an operation only to be distracted by the skeleton in the room.
On a farm outside London lives a man, his dog, his sheep, and his other animals, all of whom share a deep bond of friendship and love. They’re also pretty civilized. Shaun cozies up to sleep in the barn on a mattress with a pillow and blanket, while the dog, in charge of keeping things running on the farm, wears a watch and walks to the loo each morning with a roll of toilet paper and a newspaper. Nobody speaks: the humans talk in “hmms,” “hawws,” and gibberish while the animals mostly communicate with gestures and sounds. But these are educated folk, for all the sheep can read English. They follow a strict routine day after day, and while it’s a good life, it’s monotonous.
When one day Shaun the Sheep spots a bus with an ad suggesting you “have a day off,” with a photo of a woman relaxing, he imagines himself in her place and sets out to plan a holiday. And his friends will join him. Deception is needed. How can they distract the disciplinarian dog from carrying out his duties? How can they escape notice from the farmer? An elaborate plan gets set in motion, involving bribing a duck with slices of bread, and we discover its details with a slow reveal, keeping up the suspense and showing us just how clever these sheep are. What they want is to watch a movie at home, but they’re so new to the idea that they make a mess, sticking a fork in the microwave with a bag of popcorn and adding flowers to the blender when making juice.
The wit is in the details; the plot is incidental. As Shaun and his sheep friends — and their owner’s loyal dog — traipse around London, their feeble attempts to fit in with the humans is a constant source of humour. On finding themselves in a fancy restaurant, they’re uncertain what to do. One of them starts eating the menu, and after a thumbs up, the others start cutting up theirs, too. Eventually they start to emulate a man at an adjacent table— he’s reading a menu so they do, too — but they take it a step too far, following his every move: when the man drops a fork, the sheep knock all their cutlery off the table.
Part of what makes the film work so well is how grounded it is in reality, even though we’re asked to believe that sheep can read, draw, and scheme, as well as invent and operate technology. But if they walk down the street doing something crazy, someone will reliably end up snapping a photo of it on his iPhone. When the farmer, suffering from memory loss, finds himself at a hairdressing shop, seeing the shaver brings back some kind of vague memory — of shearing sheep though he can’t place it — he picks up the shears to give a celebrity a haircut. We expect a disaster, but of course the bizarre hairdo he gives the man is a hit and takes off like wildfire, spreading through the web as fans post photos and others seek the farmer out for the same offbeat hairdo. Oh, the absurdity of human nature.
This article, “Sundance Review: The ‘Shaun the Sheep’ film is winning and witty,” was revised on Aug. 4, 2015 from the original version published during the Sundance Film Festival.