Animals fare far better in silents than talkies. The absence of dialogue puts them on an equal footing with their human co-stars, and what’s more, they’re cuter. The only place left in these synchronised days where feathered and furred characters can expect top billing is in animated movies – digitally rendered and belting out showtunes. While we have become accustomed to talking animals in children’s animations, ever since Mickey Mouse started to squeak, Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep is a gent from the old school, having stubbornly refused to articulate anything more complicated than a bleat for 20 years.
And now Shaun the Sheep, who like the most illustrious slapstick comedians, is both black-and-white and silent, has been given his very own feature film. And no bankable Hollywood name has been roped in to voice his inner monologue. While the advance publicity has not been playing up the silent angle, this is a dialogue-free delight, a champion of visual gags, physical comedy and unutterable joy. Following on from the 2007 series of short animations made for CBBC, Shaun and his fellows dwell in an almost wordless world, baa-ing and snorting and belching their feelings, just like their harrumphing two-legged companions. As in the shorts, the written word often appears as an incomprehensible squiggle – perfect for young children who would be challenged or bored by too many letters.
But Shaun the Sheep has an adult audience too, who appreciated his seven-minute TV escapades not just as kid-friendly fun, but as throwbacks to the silent comedy greats. Aardman’s previous films have cheekily plundered the classics for plots and sly in-jokes – restaging The Great Escape in a hen coop for its feature debut, Chicken Run (2000). Shaun the Sheep the Movie is no exception. There’s barely a frame, or a foley effect here that isn’t a wink to Jacques Tati. And amid nods to Inception, Taxi Driver and The Terminator, there is a Hannibal Lecter-impersonating cat who wins the movie-reference game hands down. C’mon, you’d feel cheated without a mention of The Silence of the Lambs, wouldn’t you? There’s a tip of the titfer to classic British animation too. Shaun’s longing for a break from the farm’s daily grind of tedium and indignity accidentally results in a barnyard mutiny and more than a shade of Animal Farm.