Shaun the Sheep (voiced by Justin Fletcher) is getting sick of the daily grind now that summer’s here, and wishes he could at least find a way of staying in bed for a couple more hours instead of getting up at the crack of dawn when the cockerel crows, herded out of the shed where he and his fellow sheep stay overnight, and marched into the field in preparation for shearing, should it be the day for that. But the Farmer (John Sparkes) insists on sticking with his schedule and never simply sitting back and enjoying life, so on Shaun goes, in the same cycle, over and over, ordered around by Bitzer the Dog (also Sparkes) who is the Farmer’s right hand man. Dog. Yet Shaun is a wily critter, and concocts a plan to make things easier for himself – but only makes life a lot more difficult.
Shaun the Sheep was a creation of Aardman, the British animation studio that sold Wallace and Gromit around the world to huge success. Nick Park was the brains behind them, but had not started the company, which had been around ever since it was crafting the adventures of Morph for Tony Hart’s art for kids programmes back in the nineteen-seventies, and the Shaun show that had run for umpteen episodes on television was what this big screen adventure was spun off from. As with many a TV-derived motion picture, the plot essentially had the characters heading off on holiday, in this instance not the countryside or even abroad, but to the big city, appropriately called Big City. However, it was not much of a break for Shaun when he was called on to rescue the Farmer from the pickle he was in.
A pickle all Shaun’s fault, let’s not forget, as he had contrived to make him fall asleep by counting the sheep (they creep behind him and pass before him over and over to send him to the land of nod), then put him in the caravan to slumber while Shaun and company live it up in the house – until Bitzer twigs what is up. Alas, in their panic the caravan breaks free and rolls off down the road, with the farmyard denizens unable to stop it, and when it finally comes to rest in the middle of the street, miles away, the Farmer meets with an accident and loses his memory, leaving his creatures to fend for themselves. You can see here the fear of abandonment was looming large, although you could also see the plot was oddly similar to a far less successful family film at the box office, the nineties flop Babe: Pig in the City.
Whereas that contained a strange, almost nightmarish atmosphere that made it a cult movie, if little else, Shaun’s excursion was far lighter, though not without the odd moment of tearstained emotion for the characters. Directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak were obviously counting on the British reputation for being a nation of animal lovers, hence the focus on being nice to our furry, woolly or feathered friends, which paid off especially when the villain of the piece entered the fray, an animal control officer named Trumper (Omid Djalili) who wields a grabbing claw all the better to scoop up any errant beast and plonk them in the back of his van, then escort them back to the cages where the best they can hope for is that some kind someone looking for a pet will take them home with them. Quite why you would take a sheep back to such a place goes unexplained here, but it does bring about the prison break subplot.
There was a lot packed into this, and almost all of it very funny indeed, even down to the background details which were a staple of the Aardman cartoons, including rather charmingly the voice of the late Professor Stanley Unwin over a Tannoy, a master of speaking mumbo jumbo which is what the characters communicate with here, not one discernible example of language to be heard, making this something of a throwback to silent comedies. But it remained recognisably of its era for all that, a real charmer whose occasional attempts to tug the heartstrings were perhaps less satisfying than when they went for the laughs – did we really need to see Timmy (also the subject of his own show) in tears? It wasn’t enough to upset any of the tone, however, for there was always a giggle just around the corner, including one of the best instances of waiting to watch the end credits of its kind, always a treat and precisely why this studio were so adept at mirthmaking, they put so much care and attention into their daftness. Music by Ilan Eshkeri.