Sometimes the simplest movies are the best. Case in point: “Shaun the Sheep,” a dialogue-free, non-digitally designed, plain old stop-motion animated film that is hilarious beyond human measure.
The latest gift from England’s deliciously eccentric Aardman Animations, it flies above even the baffling brilliance of Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit films. The new entry runs rings around those delights, becoming the official world record holder for gut-busting brilliance. I would call it a crowning achievement, but there’s another family in England with the rights to the crowns.
For those unaware of Shaun’s long-running and internationally beloved BBC TV series, the hoopla is well deserved. Shaun is a cute character with the personality of a somewhat bored teenager. He and his little flock live at Mossy Bottom Farm under the care of the hardworking and none-too-clever Farmer. The animals’ efforts to move on to something a bit more exciting have led to televised adventures involving borrowed ice cream vans, hand gliders and cabbage-based soccer matches.
Each episode belongs in the quietly absurdist, surreal company of Chaplin, Keaton and Tati. Far be it from Aardman to stop there. For Shaun’s big-screen debut, the stakes are even higher — a day spent away from home in the Big City.
The animals’ visit is inspired child’s play and more, working on the level of sophisticated New Yorker magazine cartoons with cinematic genius sprinkled on top. In order to sneak away, they have to put their myopic owner to sleep, sneak secretly onto a crowded bus and tour the metropolis by impersonating random citizens, moving down the sidewalks the way people sometimes do after bar closing time.
For 85 glorious minutes, Shaun and his friends have wild misadventures involving hair salons, surgical wards, fine dining and a lost animal shelter mirroring “The Silence of the Lambs.”
Silly enough, but the sheep are not the butt of the jokes. The film is well stocked with comic collisions between people, or between people and nature, and especially between people and machines. The endearing sheep are anthropomorphized signposts pointing to the embarrassing idiocy of middle-class life.
How is it as a film? Amazing. Ridley Scott could not give you better camerawork, editing and lighting. Molded out of what looks like colorful Play-Doh, this is an imaginary world of cleverly constructed sight gags, where a sharp glance delivers more than a dozen punch lines.
The conversation is verbal nonsense that says everything through its tone alone. The characters express little but communicate loads — just like their goofy, delightfully intelligent movie. If it cracked me up any more, I’d need a plaster cast for my funny bone.