It might come as a surprise to many but even the wonderfully eccentric stable of characters from Aardman Animations, which includes the legendary Wallace and Gromit, can suffer from the dreaded ennui of life.
That enervating sense that we’ve been there, done that a thousand times already and that the novelty of the new, the thrill of the unseen and the unexperienced is well and truly behind us.
Even Shaun the Sheep, whose first made his appearance in the 1995 Wallace and Gromit short film A Close Shave before going to star in his own TV series, has succumbed, along with Bitzer the Dog, the Farmer and the motley crew of his herd of sheep to the debilitating sense that life in the quaint surrounds of Mossy Bottom Farm is stuck in one big, alarm clock-heralded early morning rut.
It wasn’t always like that of course with the opening scenes of Shaun the Sheep Movie showing everyone in the first flush of new rural love, the sheer joy of being together evident for all to see and captured for all time by the Farmer in a group portrait that he even went to the trouble of framing for display.
Alas it now lies, dusty, cracked and forgotten, along with any sense that life was once that was much fun, on a messy bench in the Farmer’s house, its sorry state emblematic of the overall state of relations on the farm which have lost any sense of spontaneity and joy.
No one is quite sure what to do to reverse this or even if they care anymore, with even the rooster failing to put much oomph into his cockadoodledoos.
It looks like there is no escape from the dead hand of routine – the Farmer has grown all-too-enamoured of his precious schedule, which hangs on the barn door housing Shaun and his fellow sheep including, naturally enough, the adorable Timmy – until one day Shaun notices the forest green double decker bus to The Big City adorned with ad for a Day Off chocolate door and hatches a plan to get not just the sheep but the whole farm 24 hours respite from the same-old, same-old.
Of course, as is the way of these things, and it wouldn’t be an Aardman film without something going fantastically, hilariously, farcically wrong, his simple plan to keep the Farmer out of the way doesn’t quite go as planned and the Sheep and Bitzer are forced to race into the wholly unknown environs of The Big City to rescue their wayward, amnesiac farmer, and one time friend, and bring him back to Mossy Bottom Farm, which is suddenly looking far more appealing than it has in a long time.
While Shaun the Sheep Movie isn’t quite as over the top silly as the Wallace and Gromit films or Chicken Run, it nevertheless manages to cram in more sight gags and visual asides that many of its animated brethren – the scene where Shaun is forced to pay of the farm’s mobster-like duck with slices of bread to get his help is a gem – proof that the Aardman spirit of gentle lampooning and gleeful satire is still very much intact.
Two scenes in particular are absolutely inspired, drawing on a long English comedy history of amping up the absurd and the downright silly to draw some well-deserved laughs.
In the first scene, Shaun and his fellow sheep, disguised, and the term has to be used very loosely, as people in op shop clothing, end up in a fancy restaurant hiding out from the militantly obsessed Animal Control Officer who is determined, in the way of all villains, to catch his prey.
Unsure of exactly how to behave in such a situation – one of the sheep, for instance, eats the menu rather than orders from it – they mimic everyone around them to hilarious effect, with accidental cutlery dropping and an indelicate burp leading to mass clearing of tableware and socially-unacceptable belching respectively.
In the other, we are introduced to the inmates, and that is the only word for them sadly, of the Animal Control Officer’s grim facility, a chance for the Aardman animators to have some fun with prison motifs as varied as Silence of the Lambs (a Siamese cat in a protective head cone does a superb job of standing in for Hannibal Lector) and The Great Escape.
It’s depressing and bleak in one way, since it marks one of the low points in Shaun’s attempts to get the Farmer home safely, but it’s also gloriously madcap too, underlining that even in the darker part of the film, humour isn’t too far away.
This isn’t after all, The Shawshank Redemption.
But it’s not just the visual gags that amuse and delight.
Shaun the Sheep Movie, which retains the appealingly nonsensical gibberish talk of the TV series to great effect – it reminds you constantly of Eric Sykes’ Rhubarb Rhubarb short film, itself a sequel of shorts to 1969’s Rhubarb – pokes all kind of holes in the pomposity of modern fame, celebrity foibles, social media fads and big city life in general throughout.
At one point, the Farmer, on the run from the hospital where he first ends up, in a food-splattered T-shirt and striped pyjama pants, is mistaken, thanks to his instinctive sheep-shearing skills – his memory isn’t fully back at this point but some things are re-surfacing – for a genius hairdresser and his brush with instant fame is a thing to behold, skewering all manner of modern obsessions with the shallow end of the gene pool beautifully.
The real joy of Shaun the Sheep Movie however is that for all the silly visual gags and gentle satire, that its main focus is on the relationship between the Farmer, his dog Bitzer and the sheep, more than ably led by the highly-capable and utterly-engaging Shaun, and the way it goes through all kinds of highs and lows before the vivacity of their once nascent-relationship is restored.
It affirms the old adage that you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone, unashamedly pulling at the heartstrings but not in a way that is even remotely cloying or unbearable, rather touching and rather poignant.
It’s a film that balances nicely between the heartfelt and the absurd, the sweet and the hilariously satirical, wearing its eccentric quirkiness as a badge of honour to heartwarming, laugh-inducing effect.
And you will finish the film, much as Dorothy did in the Wizard of Oz, realising anew that there really is no place like home, a lesson it takes Shaun, the sheep and the others a hair-raising trip through The Big City and back to again, with us laughing all the way, to fully appreciate.