It's probably far too easy to forget just how wondrously captivated we originally were by Nick Park's stellar Wallace & Gromit shorts of the mid-1990s, responsible for suggesting his Bristol-based studio, Aardman, could become the Pixar of stop-motion animation - much less sexy than CGI, true, but able to channel narrative magic through the exquisitely time-consuming technique.
Unfortunately, after the riotous Chicken Run, Aardman's disagreements with its first American backers Dreamworks, complicated by underwhelming box-office for the first Wallace & Gromit feature and for its massively entertaining CGI foray Flushed Away, effectively sidelined the studio's big-screen footprint for most of the subsequent years. But Aardman valiantly soldiered on in the small screen, with the mischievous sheep first revealed in Wallace & Gromit's final short A Close Shave and lovingly named Shaun becoming the star of its own, massively successful television series now on a fourth season.
It's in the Mossy Bottom farm that is the series' setting that this big-screen outing for Shaun starts, with a buoyant credit sequence setting up the "origin story" of his flock and its guard dog Bitzer, before getting into the brunt of the action. Tired from the endless drudgery of the farm routine, Shaun plans on fooling the Farmer so everyone can take a daylong break, but the plan backfires and the Farmer ends up rolling into the Big City inside an out-of-control caravan, with the resulting crash rendering him amnesiac and forcing the sheep to organize a rescue expedition menaced at every point by the sinister animal control agent Trumper.
Shaun's television adventures were always aimed at a younger audience than most of Aardman's most celebrated output, even though the studio never specifically boxed its work as "adult" or "children's"; Shaun the Sheep Movie remains a rounder-edged, cuddlier proposition, but it's clear that the studio has lavished just as much care in this family-friendly outing as it did in Chicken Run, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit or The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists. In fact, it seems as if the studio put in even more care, since - as in the series - there's not one single line of spoken dialogue. Everything is conveyed purely through movement and animation - much more demanding for an 80-minute feature than for five-minute episodes.
This means that Shaun the Sheep Movie has a higher bar to clear, and that it does so brilliantly is proof of just how consistent its talents are: this is animation at its best, purely audiovisual storytelling done with all the imagination and commitment you would expect from the studio, cleverly intertwining the handmade quality of its animation with an incredibly sophisticated sound work, retaining its thoroughly deadpan British sense of humour within an almost Chaplinesque sense of old-fashioned burlesque (visible, for instance, in the initial runaway caravan scene and later in the big restaurant sequence).
That none of the studio's founders - Mr. Park, David Lord and Peter Sproxton - are directly involved in Shaun the Sheep Movie is also testament to a certain "spirit" that remains present in the company's output; it's all about quality control, if you'd like, and it's clear that Aardman's remains at a very high level.
SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE
UK, France, 2014
Voice cast Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Omid Djalili, Stanley Unwin
Directors and screenwriters Mark Burton and Richard Starzak; animation supervisor Loyd Price; puppet design Kate Anderson; cinematographers Charles Copping and Dave Alex Riddett; composer Ilan Eshkeri; designer Matt Perry; editor Sim Evan-Jones; producers Julie Lockhart and Paul Kewley, Studiocanal and Aardman Animations in association with Anton Capital Entertainment
Screened August 22nd 2015, Lisbon, DVD