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Review

'Shaun the Sheep' absurdly amusing for all ages

Kenneth Turan
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Film Critic

"Shaun the Sheep" is the kind of movie in which lobsters exchange fist bumps and a goldfish plays Death Row jailhouse harmonica. Playful, absurd and endearingly inventive, this unstoppably amusing feature reminds us why Britain's Aardman Animations is a mainstay of the current cartooning golden age.

The creators of the much loved "Wallace & Gromit" franchise, the folks at Aardman aren't heard from as often as places like Pixar because of the labor-intensive nature of the stop-motion animation technique they favor. If a single animator had made "Shaun the Sheep," we're informed, the film would have taken nine years to finish.

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Still, the wait is always worth it, especially in the case of Shaun, who made his debut two decades ago in the Oscar-winning Wallace & Gromit short "A Close Shave" and went on to star in his own long-running television series.

With his exploits now expanded to feature length, Shaun is tasked with leaving his farm home and taking part in a search-and-rescue mission in the big city. This may sound like a story for children, but the truth is that cleverness-starved adults may end up its biggest fans.

Though Shaun has been described by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak, the film's writing-and-directing team, as "pretty bright ... for a sheep," he is also an animal of few words. Not to put too fine a point on it, but ... he doesn't speak at all, and neither does anyone else.

Yet to describe "Shaun" as a silent film is not quite accurate. It's not just that the jaunty Ilan Eshkeri score keeps everything sprightly; it's that the film's human as well as animal characters grunt and mumble in a way that should be incomprehensible but, when always-amusing faces are added in, always gets the job done.

"Shaun the Sheep" starts at Mossy Bottom Farm, which, truth be told, is not the world's most exciting place. With the good-hearted Farmer and his exasperated dog Bitzer (who wears a whistle around his neck like a put-upon coach) following the same routine every day, it's no wonder that Shaun and his fellow sheep, not to mention those rowdy, party-animal pigs, feel like they're in a rut.

Then Shaun sees a "Have a Day Off" billboard on the side of a passing bus and a lightbulb goes off. Why shouldn't sheep have a few days off, why shouldn't sheep have some fun? Why indeed?

Masterminding a complex plot, which includes bribing an avaricious duck to distract Bitzer, Shaun tricks the Farmer into falling asleep (by counting sheep, what else?) and warehouses him in an old caravan trailer on the property.

But while the sheep are making merry in the Farmer's house, disaster strikes. The caravan, with the farmer dead asleep inside, gets unmoored. Next thing you know it's headed on an out-of-control run for the Big City, where the inevitable crash lands the Farmer in the hospital so addled he can't remember who he is or what he does.

Hot on the rescue trail are both the ever-loyal Bitzer, Shaun and half a dozen of his sheep buddies. This lot proves to be very resourceful, even dressing up in thrift-store human clothing to have a chic dinner at high-end French restaurant Le Chou Brûlé, where they almost give themselves away by eating the menus.

Shaun and his fellow sheep have to be resourceful to avoid their one natural enemy, sinister animal-control officer Trumper, a by-the-books bureaucrat whose villainy knows no bounds.

Given that no one says so much as a word, it's remarkable that "Shaun the Sheep" can sustain its inventiveness, both in terms of overall plot developments and small moments of comedy, for an 86-minute length, but it does.

In fact, this film is so gently clever you won't want it to end, and "Shaun the Sheep" shares this reluctance, throwing up visual gags even after the final credits. "Life's a treat with Shaun the sheep," the group Rizzle Kicks sings as those credits roll, and it's hard to argue the point.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'Shaun the Sheep'

Rating: PG, for rude humor

Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes

Playing: In wide release

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