The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (2012)

animation, boat, comedy, David Tennant, family, Hugh Grant, pirates, review

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.

Life of Pi (2012)

Ang Lee, boat, CGI, fucking beautiful, meh, review, tiger

I have to be upfront with you all, my loyal readership, and say that I haven’t actually read the incredibly popular Booker Prize winning novel by Yann Martel. Life of Pi was one of those novels that everyone initially considered unfilmable until Ang Lee only went and bloody filmed it. Who would have thought it would be possible for an award winning director to produce the beloved story of a teenage boy getting into trouble on a journey from India to Canada and drifting for 227 days with only an adult Bengal tiger for company? Attempting to achieve the impossible is becoming a major theme in Hollywood lately with major adaptations of, to name but a few, On The Road, Midnight’s Children and Cloud Atlas. The road to Life of Pi hasn’t been easy with one big name after another stepping into the spotlight and back out again (namely M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuarón and Jean-Pierre Jeunet). Then in strolls Ang Lee to rise to the challenge aided by his dreamy visuals and incredibly life-like computer generated tiger. Lee is not new to the world of literary adaptations with critically acclaimed versions of Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain as evidence of his suitability. And whilst I can’t comment myself, I’m reliably informed that Lee didn’t move too far away from Martel’s novel, which ought to keep any Pi-hards out there pretty happy.

Cinema lovers are also bound to be satisfied as Life of Pi is a triumph of modern cinema. Lee has offered his audience a luscious masterpiece that never fails to deliver one breath-taking visual after another. Lee embraces the magical elements of Martel’s story and creates some truly artistic moments. The scenes that take place as the teenage Pi is floating on a vast ocean are moments of unadulterated beauty. There are scenes where the sea becomes mirror-like and we watch Pi and his chum floating in mid-air. These moments are simply too spectacular for words (even though they are a bit of a reminder of the disappointing The Lovely Bones). Lee and cinematographer, Claudio Miranda, create a totally wondrous landscape that is, at the same time, breathtakingly realistic. Their use of colour and light tell us that none of this should be happening but it is impossible not to become totally immersed. Without a doubt, Lee’s film is one of the most technically brilliant films that we have seen in a long time and is, quite probably, the most visually outstanding films of 2012.
However, and I must be upfront about this, I didn’t really see much beyond that. I’ve read countless 5* reviews of this film and have seen it referred to as “the best film of 2012” and I’m just left a little bewildered. Just as I felt after seeing Avatar and The Artist (one of which I disliked the other I loved immensely), it all felt a little like art for art’s sake. A film that ended up being more about the technical brilliance on show than it was about telling an engaging and meaningful story. Having not read the book, I was excited by the idea of a young man being tested mentally, physically and spiritually in a very odd situation. Then  we come to the issue of the framing narrative. This turned a story that had a great deal of potential into nothing more than a shaggy dog story. From what I’ve read, the book deals with the ‘twist’ ending with more ambiguity than Lee’s film seems to but here it is pretty clear what we are supposed to believe. In a brief moment, the magical realism that Lee and his crew worked so hard to create becomes meaningless. Still beautiful but meaningless in narrative terms. The story of Pi and his tiger had a great deal of potential and the themes of human strength, survival, and personal belief are uplifting but, without any opportunity to mirror them in the alternative story, they become lost. Had we seen the idea of humanity succumbing to its base animalistic nature in the struggle to survive and watching Pi come to terms with the tiger within himself it would have ensured that all of his philosophising seemed more than just shallow and self-important. If all of the lessons he learnt were on a journey that never took place how are we meant to accept them for ourselves?
And what of the whole religion thing? It all seemed rather irrelevant in the end. God is invoked only briefly during Pi’s journey in two rather minor moments: once when a fish ends up jumping into the duo’s boat and when they discover a mysterious carnivorous island that nobody has ever seen or will ever see again. Once again, it all comes back to the framing narrative where certain connections are made between religion and the art of storytelling. Now, good readers, I’m a student of literature and I love the whole symbolism thing but I think this was all just came across as a bit desperate. Considering the storyteller made a big deal of its ability to make one believe in God all it ended up doing was suggest that religion is, in fact, just a way for people to bury their heads in the sand and avoid the harsh realities of life. I’d like to think the novel deals with the themes in a more poetic and measured way but it didn’t come across here. The way the ending was handled just left me feeling a bit cold to everything I had just watched open-mouthed,
Although I cannot say that I fully agree with Peter Bradshaw’s damning 2/5. There were some genuinely lovely moments during the narrative and I think had the film not been placed inside the premise of the elder Pi recounting his tale to an unnamed author it would have deserved the great praise it has been given. With the delightful scenes in Pondicherry and a brief (and Amelie-esque) stop in a Parisian swimming pool, the film’s opening offers a stunning account of Pi’s upbringing at his father’s zoo and his complex, almost obsessive, relationship with religion. It does annoyingly signposts where this film is going with pointed references to Pi’s ‘gotta catch ‘em all’ attitude to religion and his father’s rational disapproval. Rather than introduce us to Pi and his family it introduces us to God, or at least God’s role within the future narrative. Saying that, I actually enjoyed Pi: the early years but I couldn’t escape the feeling that Lee was just going through the motions before he could get to the crux of the film: namely the boy and the tiger.
For that, dear ones, is the whole point of this film. I doubt anyone really cared how Pi and his family ended up being on the doomed freight ship with their entire menagerie or how Pi managed to escape accompanied only by this deadly creature. All that matters is that there is a motherfucking tiger on motherfucking a boat. And what a tiger it is. The CGI used to create Richard Parker, for that is indeed the beast’s name, is mind-blowingly realistic. Of course, it is safe to assume there is a mix of the real and the man-made in there but there is never a point where you become uncomfortably aware that you are watching something made with a computer. I find myself rendered almost speechless by how good it actually was. There was so much detail: the eyes, the fur, the miniscule movements of his muscles and his skeleton. It all comes together to create something that you could genuinely believe was really there. (I realise I’m beginning to gush uncontrollably here but one more point and I’ll move on) Take, for example, Richard Parker’s final scene: we see a close-up of the slightly emaciated tiger jump out of the boat and skulk off into the jungle. The detail on his now more visible skeleton is just exquisite. This one aspect of the film left me with a much greater sense of awe than the narrative itself could ever hope to bring about.
Writing something about this film proved to be difficult. I wanted to like it. I really did. From the first time I saw the imagery on show in the trailer I was hooked. A film that went even further than the sheer beauty of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and the technical brilliance of James Cameron’s Avatar. In the end I can only sum up my feelings with one word: meh. It was good but I felt like something was missing. I didn’t experience the joy and warmth that many have discussed in relation to both the film and the book. I was ready for this film to challenge every idea I had about religion but it didn’t. Yes, I was amazed by the visuals but couldn’t help feeling that there was more to the story than I was seeing here. It’s always difficult translating a novel’s lush description and a main character’s inner thought processes. I have a sense that if I read the book I would find more to this tale than I currently do. Until then I would say, watch and enjoy the Lee’s latest artistic masterpiece but take the narrative and any meaning is proclaims to offer on life, the universe and everything with a rather large pinch of salt.