‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’
Directors:
Richard Starzak, Mark Burton
Voices of: Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes
Rating: PG
3 (out of 5) Globes

In the U.K. the stop-motion outfit Aardman are gods; some Britishers spend Christmas Day watching the Wallace and Gromit shorts (along with the “Star Wars” movies). They’ve never quite conquered America, which is probably inevitable. Their shtick is stubbornly English, built upon a foundation of deadpan, absurdist humor and a loving portrayal of national foibles, plus bad teeth and cheese. “Shaun the Sheep Movie” is even more of a hard sell. Whereas Aardman has regularly scored name actors for their films (Ralph Fiennes in the “Wallace and Gromit” movie, Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman in “Flushed Away,” Hugh Grant in “Pirates!”), this one not only has no big stars but also no dialogue whatsoever. There’s a vocal cast roster, but even the human characters communicate exclusively in grunts, if that.

Granted, the film is so simple adding voices would seem an unnecessary extravagance. Built off of Aardman’s long-running TV show, it follows the denizens of a farm, chiefly the cute titular sheep, a bumbling farmer, his overly loyal sheepdog and others. Here, they wind up, by accident, in the big, bad city, where the critters battle a nefarious animal catcher while the farmer, after suffering some light head trauma, loses his memory and is reborn as a trendy hairdresser. There’s also some business where the sheep regularly try to pose, sometimes with disarming success, as people.

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There are honestly not enough gags here, and not just because Aardman is blowing up a show that tends to run seven minutes into 12 times that. It’s less about the quantity of jokes, though, than the quality — or rather, the way they’re all so goshdarned pleasant. Even with dastardly villains and the occasional enforced pop song montage, “Shaun the Sheep Movie” is a very, very nice movie — like the fifth movie in a long-running series in the 1930s. It coasts on a steady wave of silliness, including the visual and sometimes text-based puns that have become Aardman’s stock and trade. (That said, none of the film’s puns can touch the tagline: “Catch them if ewe can.”) Rarely do things get as inspired as in the “Wallace & Gromit”s, and there’s even nothing on the order of the underrated “Flushed Away.” The vibe is one of modesty and relaxation, as though it will settle for a smile permanently plastered on your face rather than sporadic guffaws.

Part of the charm has to do with the lack of dialogue, a gimmick that’s in fact shockingly rare. Only a handful of films have ever communicated purely through visuals; even most silent films, mind you, relied heavily on intertitles to convey dialogue and even plot. (F.W. Murnau’s “The Last Laugh” is truly one of the few that relies on a single intertitle, and one that was enforced upon it.) “Shaun the Sheep Movie” joins the recent grim Ukrainian grinder “The Tribe” in forcing viewers to pay attention to images and abstract sounds only, though it’s far easier to understand, and far easier to simply watch. It’s closer to a Jacques Tati film, where the dialogue, if audible, is beside the point, and where we’re invited to scan the frames for little jokes or bits of funny business. That comparison makes “Shaun” sounds more ambitious than it is, but its simplicity is exactly the kind that gets underrated, as though conjuring up a great bad pun was something anyone can do. 

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