'Shaun the Sheep Movie': Sundance Review

Baa, baa, black-faced sheep has a bit too much wool padding in the plot, but charms in standout scenes

A spinoff from Aardman Animation's highly successful TV series, this feature stars the plucky young ram of the title and his flock in an urban adventure.

Let's get the ovine puns out of the way now: Warm and fuzzy, if a little woolly in story terms, Aardman's latest feature, Shaun the Sheep Movie, comfortably plays to the British production company's technical and comic strengths, but doesn't exactly venture far into pastures new. Spun off from a hugely successful, dialogue-free TV series starring the eponymous hooved hero who first appeared in Nick Park's 1995 Wallace and Gromit short A Close Shave, this feature co-directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzack takes its core farmyard characters on an urban adventure, but despite the broader canvas it often feels like an attenuated TV episode.

That won't necessarily dilute the film's appeal to its core fan base of younger children and loyal Aardman fans worldwide, but this is less likely to have crossover appeal to families with older kids and general viewers. Ticket sales should be strong for U.K. distributor StudioCanal when the film opens in February in time for British schools' half-term holidays and later this will sell by the bale-load on home-entertainment platforms worldwide.

After some faux-Super 8 footage unspools glimpses of the central characters in their younger, carefree days, the action proper opens in the present on Mossy Bottom Farm, the rural homestead of the Farmer (voiced, if that's the word to describe his export-friendly, indecipherable grunts and mutterings, by John Sparkes), his sheepdog Bitzer (also Sparkes), and his moderately sized flock of sheep, led by small but sparky young ram Shaun (Justin Fletcher).

Bored by the incessant routine of daily life, Shaun plots with the flock and a conniving duck to get some time off, achieved by lulling the Farmer to sleep and distracting Bitzer with a bone. But an unfortunate string of accidents, the first of many set pieces that show off the studio's facility with chase sequences and cleverly contrived, Heath Robinson-style comedy mechanics, leads to the Farmer rolling away in a mobile home into the Big City nearby where a concussion leaves him with amnesia.

The sheep make their way to the metropolis to find the Farmer, but cross paths with an overzealous animal catcher named Trumper (Omid Djalili) who pursues them around town. Eventually, Bitzer and Shaun end up banged up in the local pound, prompting some of the funniest, adult-skewed jokes in the film, including a dog with "bark" and "bite" tattooed on his paws and a Hannibal Lecter-like cat trussed up in a protective neck cone. Meanwhile, the Farmer, guided by trace memories of his sheep-shearing days, has become a celebrity hairdresser, a gag that less-successfully hinges on social media satire that will probably look really dated in 20 years' time.

Co-director Starzack was one of the guiding hands behind the series version of Shaun the Sheep, and that experience in the kind of brisk, skit-based comedy that makes the series so charming shows through here in stand-alone scenes. For instance, the flock create a fine mess in the Farmer's kitchen early on (although they do less damage than the hard-partying pigs later), and around the midsection there's some well-choreographed chaos when the flock disguise themselves as people to eat in a restaurant. But those parts don't always mesh as satisfyingly together with the narrative whole as one might like, and despite the efforts to give some of the rest of the flock bits of business to do, the supporting characters rather lack personality, apart from Timmy, Shaun's little preschool-age cousin, who is a star in his own right in his own spinoff series, Timmy Time.

The animation itself is pleasingly tactile and hand-posed, up to Aardman's usual high standards. If anything, the expressivity of the human characters impresses more than the animals', a reverse of the usual state of affairs in most animation. The backgrounds are richly detailed, peppered by the company's trademark shop-sign puns, while an impressive cast of extras mills about in the street scenes. Visually, it all feels very much of a piece with the old-school, old-fashioned worldview that's part of Aardman's signature style, which makes the modish choices for the soundtrack — featuring tunes by Eliza Doolittle and Rizzle Kicks — seem all the more jarring.

For the record, the film's title card reads Shaun the Sheep Movie, which feels like it has one definite article too few.

Production companies: A Studiocanal, Aardman presentation in association with Anton Capital Entertainment of an Aardman Animations production
Cast: Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Omid Djalili, Richard Webber, Kate Harbour, Tim Hands, Andy Nyman, Simon Greenhall, Emma Tate, Jack Paulson, Sean Connolly, Henry Burton, Dhimant Vyas, Sophie Laughton, Nia Medi James, Stanley Unwin, Nick Park
Directors/screenwriters: Mark Burton, Richard Starzack
Producers: Julie Lockhart, Paul Kewley
Executive producers: Peter Lord, Nick Park, David Sproxton, Olivier Courson, Ronald Halpern

Co-executive producers: Sean Clarke, Kerry Lock, Alicia Gold, Carla Shelley
Directors of photography: Charles Copping, Dave Alex Riddett
Production designer: Matt Perry
Editor: Sim Evan-Jones
Composer: Ilan Eshkeri
Puppet Design: Kate Anderson
Animation Supervisor: Loyd Price
Sales: StudioCanal

No MPAA rating, 82 minutes

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