When talking animation there is one studio that is often overlooked thanks to such superpowers as Pixar and Studio Ghibli. That studio is the vastly talented Aardman Animations. The studio is known for its work using stop-motion clay animation, in particular the series of films featuring the popular man and dog team, Wallace and Gromit. It easy to see why Aardman doesn’t quite have the presence of other studios as its number of feature films to date is only 5. They started off on a high with two critically acclaimed stop-motion films Chicken Run in 2000 and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbitin 2005. It was their third attempt and, incidentally the first film to move into CGI, Flushed Away, that broke their streak. This and the run-of-the-mill Arthur Christmas were perhaps telling Aardman that it was time to go back to their roots. Thankfully, their 2012 feature film The Pirates! In an adventure with Scientists! shows us what this company is really capable of and it sort of feels very much like the kind of film they’ve wanted to make for years. Now I admit that I’m an unashamedly massive fan of all things animated and I am particularly fond of the more traditional efforts. There is still something so magical about stop-motion animation (so wonderfully displayed in the likes of Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox) and there is no doubt that there will always be a feeling associated with these works that completely computer-generated works will never be able to achieve. The films being produced by this quiet Bristol-based studio in particular have what can only be described as a definitive spirit that comes across from the opening credits onwards.
The film is based on the first book in the series of ‘The Pirates!’ books written by Gideon Defoe. The books share the great sense of Britishness and silliness that has underpinned all of Aardman’s most popular works. It follows the exploits of the hapless pirate captain named, quite helpfully, Pirate Captain as he vows to win the much coveted Pirate of the Year Award. Our well-meaning hero is voiced by Hugh Grant who shows off a great sense of comic timing, something that was lost in all of the twee romantic-comedies he bumbled his way through in the 90s. Whilst this Captain seems unlikely to achieve success in the pirating world he will certainly find a place in the hearts of the audience. He is the charming but frustrated would-be scourge of the high seas who finds himself distracted by sea-shanties, ham and maintaining his luxuriant beard. Jack Sparrow he is not. More like the kind of pirate that, if I’m brutally honest, I will turn out to be when I eventually leave the humdrum of everyday life and take to the waves. He is the biggest joke pirating world and finds himself constantly being belittled by the rest of the pirating community.
Mocked by his fellow captains, our hero is nevertheless beloved by his naive and fiercely loyal crew: consisting of the likes of Pirate with the Scarf (Martin Freeman); Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson); the Suspiciously Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jenson) and the Albino Pirate (Russell Tovey). Martin Freeman does well as he finds himself in another of his traditional roles playing the frustrated second fiddle to a well-meaning but, ultimately, fairly useless leader. He is the Ernie Wise to the Pirate Captain’s Eric Morecambe and, whilst he may not be the greatest comic creation ever, his presence perfectly offsets the latter’s foolishness. Gleeson and Jenson both do admirably with their role but it is Tovey’s voice in particular that really lends itself to animation. So much so that even his small role proves to be utterly memorable. The crew encourages their captain to fight for his title and with a newfound eagerness set out to acquire their greatest haul of booty ever.
All does not go according to plan and instead of finding riches they come face to face with Charles Darwin, voiced by Dr Who himself David Tennant. This is not the Charles Darwin that we are used to. Gone is the brilliant scientific mind who gave us his Theory of Evolution and in its place we have the shy geek, often outwitted by his own monkey butler, whose major concern is finding a girlfriend. There are moments when Darwin falls flat but there is some much needed humour to be found in his primate sidekick who is thoughtful enough to provide his own subtitles.
Unable to offer the much needed booty, Darwin instead informs the Captain that his much loved parrot Polly is actually the last Dodo in existence. He is quickly promising the Pirate Captain fame and fortune if he gave permission to show her at the Scientist of the Year competition at the Royal Academy in London. Whilst Pirate with the Scarf is skeptical of Darwin’s motives, Pirate Captain is soon hightailing it back to London with the help of some beautiful 2d topographical animation. This journey turned out to be one of the most visually memorable scenes and goes to show that Aardman never miss a moment to pack in a treat for their audience.
Of course, Darwin’s motives are at loggerheads with the band of swashbucklers as he intends to use Polly to ingratiate himself with the villainous Queen Victoria, an infamous pirate hater. With the help of his trained monkey butler he embarks on his mission to steal Polly and present her himself. Queen Victoria is an inspired character voiced expertly by Imelda Staunton (who manages to recall her most despicable moments as Professor Umbridge whilst playing one of our greatest monarchs). Pirates! offers us a Queen Victoria who could stand shoulder to shoulder with the greatest cinematic villains. With her secret trapdoors, steampunk airplane, ninja skills and murderous hatred for all things piratical, she would make an excellent Bond villain should 007 ever find himself back in an animated Victorian period. Historically accurate she is not but a terribly enjoyable scoundrel.
There is plenty to enjoy about Piratesas the makers fire gags at the audience like an excitable 12 year using a submachine gun during his first go at a FPS. The quick fire assault of humour includes some fantastic throwaway lines of dialogue and non-stop sight gags. It’s worth taking note of any newspaper headline, road sign or shop front so you don’t miss out on any of the humorous puns hidden away. The world created by Aardman is exquisite in the amount of detail it contains. The filmmakers play with the stereotypes associated with pirates as the audience would view them and with all aspects of Victorian culture. It is delightful to watch something so silly that is also so beautifully crafted. For there are some truly fantastic set pieces throughout the film and none more so than the dramatic runaway bath scene which harks back to the exciting toy train chase in The Wrong Trousers. A sure fire sign that they are getting closer to their past glory.
My major issue with Pirates is the plot itself. Or, at least, the speed with which the plot moves forward. The one problem with the ceaseless campaign of visual gags is that it tends to take centre stage and the action in the foreground is often dismissible. There is often too much for the audience to take in and the plot twists so much that it often seems preferable to immerse yourself in the background instead. The narrative suddenly lurches forward every time you think you’re on solid ground without giving you much time to breathe. The plot ends up being choppier than any of the waves the Pirate Captain and his crew encounter along their way. After getting the introductions sorted the plot steams forward at such a speed that we end up in London before we’re really aware of what’s happening. It speeds though the final act so quickly that it doesn’t really matter how we get there just as long as there is the dramatic showdown.
It’s not as if the film was at risk at running to a ridiculous length so I fail to see why the writers couldn’t have slowed the plot down so the audience was able to really engage with the story before them. Had the narrative been just a little more considered this film would have felt less chaotic and out of control. From my point of view it would have been a nice counterpoint to the hectic backdrop if the plot had been stronger and more self-assured so it could stand out. The characters can only keep one engaged with the action for so long and even the lovable Pirate Captain cannot completely keep our focus when he is constantly zipping from one island to another. And, whilst I’m at it, what of the actual pirating? For a ship that was constantly on the move the crew can hardly be accused of doing much plundering on their way. We have the science and the adventure but perhaps, next time, we deserve a little more of the piracy.
And I really do hope there will be a next time. What Aardman have managed here is to create the start of what is bound to be a great franchise of children’s animated films. It was a bit of bumpy start maybe but with the characters, cast and the exquisite animation on show it would be a shame if it’s the last we see of the Pirate Captain and Co. It is a film that you cannot watch and end up not feeling warm and thoroughly satisfied. It is delightfully British and fantastically silly. It is the sort of film that demands a second playing almost as soon as you’ve finished the first just so you can search for any hidden gags that you missed first time round. I for one cannot wait to sit down and enjoy it again.