It wouldn’t be summer without a movie that stars one or more animals. “Free Willy” (1993). “Babe” (1995). “Jaws” (1975). “Jaws: The Revenge” (1987). And now, “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” a charming and clever concoction from the stop-motion animation studio Aardman Animations, which is known for the “Wallace & Gromit” franchise.
The film tries something unusual in the world of animated family fare: It tells its 84-minute story without words. That doesn’t mean it’s a silent film. There is plenty of communication among the characters, but it’s all done with gestures augmented by squeaks, grrr’s and a bit of singing (and surprisingly few baas, given the subject matter). There are human characters along with the animals, but they too aren’t talkers so much as mumblers.
So it will be interesting to see how much explanatory help, if any, the youngest viewers need to follow the story, but it’s perfectly clear to adult eyes. A smart and mischievous sheep named Shaun, feeling held down by the daily routine of the farm and perhaps a bit miffed about being shorn, rallies his flockmates to a mild rebellion that accidentally lands their farmer in a hospital in an anonymous big city.
The sheep soon realize that life without their farmer isn’t as blissful as they thought it would be — for one thing, they can’t reach their feed, which is stored high in the barn. So they set out for the city, determined to bring him home. The farmer’s loyal dog has embarked on his own rescue mission, and eventually sheep and dog put aside their differences and join forces for the greater good.
Babe, the sheep-herding pig, had an oddly similar experience in the 1998 film “Babe: Pig in the City,” accidentally putting Farmer Hoggett in the hospital and having to travel to the city to save the day. So Babe could have told these sheep that when farm animals go to urban areas calamity follows.
It certainly follows the sheep, with results that are alternately hilarious, a bit scary and rather touching. A nasty-looking animal control officer is soon in pursuit of the herd, which manages to disguise itself in human clothing, a sort of thrift-shop chic that is just good enough to do the job because in this city, as in most, no one really looks at anyone else too closely.
Disguises, though, work for only so long, and eventually we’re inside the Animal Containment Unit. A scene here on adoption day, with all the animals primping to catch the attention of the one human pair looking for a pet, might well bring a tear to the eye of animal lovers young and old.
While the rescuers are bumbling their way around town, the farmer stumbles into a ridiculous career as a famed hairstylist, using his sheep-shearing skills. But he doesn’t realize the source of these skills because the accident that laid him up also cost him his memory.
That complicates the sheep’s task and makes for a bittersweet reunion, but it all works out in the end. The movie is based on a British TV series, and if the individual sheep characters are not as well defined here as they are in that long-running show, their general irresistibility comes through. There is not a lot in the movie for tweener-and-above children, but some amusing film homages and such have been slipped in for adults.
“Shaun the Sheep Movie” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested) because when humans bend over, sometimes their pants aren’t up to the task of covering their entire backsides.