I will likely never get over the grisly syntax of its title, but in all other ways, Shaun the Sheep Movie is a miraculous film. It is gripped by a gentleness in both tone and worldview that has been almost totally invisible in children's cinema in the English speaking world for years upon years - and this is, very much, a children's movie. There's no merit in claiming for it the merit of sophistication it does not possess; no complex metaphors for the structure and process of human consciousness here, nor filthy double entendres placed atop a rickety scaffold of self-aware pop culture references. It has the simplest (though this does not make them less rich or important or humane) of themes - do right by your friends, and clean up after your mistakes - and wordplay that anyone old enough to read words in English can understand.

It is also, by all means, enormously satisfying and pleasurable: the gentleness may be there to make a safe 85 minutes for little ones, but it makes a gratifying respite from the hectic large-scale nature of most animated features. Even when Shaun the Sheep Movie turns hectic - as it does during the de rigueur third act chase scene that represents the film's one indefensible commitment to the limited narrative imagination of mainstream animation - it remains breathtakingly little in its scope and in its miniaturised craftsmanship. We should expect no less of England's great Aardman Animations, a studio whose hand-crafted stop-motion animation has resulted in some of the most lovely, warm, and delectably tangible cartoons of modern cinema, and here returns to its roots: not since 2000's Chicken Run has one of Aardman's features so proudly foregrounded its clay-based construction and the dollhouse-like fineness of its sets, nor worn the smudgy fingerprints to appear in its character's bodies as such badges of honor.

Expanding from the Aardman TV series Shaun the Sheep, of which I have little firsthand knowledge, the movie starts at a sheep farm somewhere in the north of England, where the cleverest of all the sheep is a small fellow named Shaun (there's not a single line of recognisable speech in the movie, but Shaun's vocalisations are provided by Justin Fletcher). As we see in a sweet opening montage staged as old 8mm footage, Shaun and his flock were the pride and joy of a farmer (John Sparkes) when they were all much younger, but age and routine have gotten the best of everybody: the sheep, the farmer, the long-suffering sheepdog Bitzer (Sparkes also). And thus it is that Shaun decides, with the help of a serendipitous bus ad, that it's time for a day off. He and his fellows stage an elaborate trap to distract Bitzer and put the farmer to sleep with the ol' "counting sheep" trick, and prepare to goof off in a harmless way, but in so doing they manage to send a trailer with the farmer inside careening down a hill, all the way to The Big City down the road. Lost and alone and hungry, the sheep and Bitzer have no option other than to head to the city to find the farmer, in the process running afoul of the zealous animal control officer Trumper (Omid Djalili), who makes capturing Shaun his primary goal for the duration of however long it is that the animals hunt through downtown. The farmer, meanwhile, has received a nasty bump on the head and lost his memory, upon which his muscle memory of shearing sheep leads him down the path of becoming a great new celebrity barber.

That last point undoubtedly sounds like a bridge further past the bridge too far, but one of the joys of Shaun the Sheep Movie lies in its redemption of ideas that seem, on their face, to be just as awful as they could possibly be. For example, the film is eagerly full of crude jokes about bodily emissions of all sorts, the worst bane of contemporary family filmmaking if there can be only one, but these jokes are centered so carefully on the characters and the world they inhabit that they end up feeling... not clever, but certainly funnier than "he just farted!" humor has any rational right to be. Or a hoary, ancient gag about how it looks like someone is peeing in a fountain but it's actually something innocuous. This doesn't always happen: the soundtrack is ready and willing to launch into a pop music interlude at the drop of a hat, and while the original song "Feels Like Summer" is used well as an emotional tether throughout, most of the song breaks are jarring and only serve to break the delicate tone that the wordless animation works so hard to craft.

When that tone works, however, the film is an irresistible gem of sweetness and concision. The clay puppets that make up the cast are astoundingly expressive - with eight sheep to keep track of, the film not only gives them all sufficiently different designs all on the same basic model that we can readily tell them apart without ever wondering why none of them look like sheep. Better yet, they're all given specific personalities, all depicted solely through pantomime and facial expressions of deeply appealing flexibility and subtlety. I assume this is all held over from the series, and that it's long practice and familiarity with the characters that makes it work so terrifically - nor should we forget that this is the studio behind the timeless Gromit, maybe the most expressive and relatable of all nonspeaking characters in animation. Animals that act like humans without betraying their animal nature and have fully realised personalities are kind of what Aardman does best, and Shaun the Sheep Movie is a least in part a victory lap to show how they can sustain doing nothing else for nearly an hour and a half.

The characters, especially Shaun, the guileless lamb Timmy (Fletcher), and the new character of a hideous stray mutt named Slip (Tim Hands), give the film its heart and resonance, and they're also marvelous comic performers: while the humor is never less than predictable (it's hard to imagine it being anything else, given the target audience), this ends up being funnier than one would expect of something with the edges sanded off so vigorously. The timing that co-writers and -directors Richard Starzak & Mark Burton bring to bear is flawless: beats hold for just long enough, character reactions are just extreme enough, and once punchlines land the film moves by them without dawdling. But better even than the character-derived humor is the wit baked into the look of the film: as much as any Aardman film yet, as much as any animated film period, the world in which Shaun the Sheep Movie is crammed full of little grace notes that the film lingers on just long enough that you can tell it wants you to notice, and the staging at times invokes the visual punning of a Jacques Tati film.

It is a playful movie, all in all: drifting into an impromptu musical number during an early montage and a more steadily choreographed one later, building a satisfying nest of callbacks and repeated gags, giving all of its characters squashy, flexible ways of moving that complement their rounded designs. That plus the directness and emotional accessibility of it make it immensely pleasurable and reassuring cinema: a movie that's perfectly tailored for children but made with such command of its aesthetic and with such a sincere belief in what it's up to that not being a child is absolutely no obstacle to finding it a wholly rewarding experience.