Aardman Animations’ latest arrives with a brilliantly silly title, a brilliantly nerdy sense of humour and more gags per square inch than you’d think permissible by EU standards. Adapted by Gideon Defoe from the first in his series of comedy novels (great family reading, every one of them), and directed by Aardman’s very own captain, Peter Lord, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists oozes playful fun.
The story sees the luxuriantly-bearded Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) determined to up his status in the piratic world by winning the Pirate of the Year award. The problem? Despite his bouncing, full-bodied facial hair and loyal crew, he’s considered something of a laughing stock amongst the popular pirate clique (Salma Hayek, Lenny Henry, and Jeremy Piven). To win their approval and the award, the Pirate Captain needs booty, and lots of it.
So begins a spate of energetic plundering set to a seventies new wave tune that results not in booty, but the arrival on board of Charles Darwin (voiced by David Tennant), who gets rather excited about the Pirate Captain’s big-boned and suspiciously Dodo-shaped parrot, Polly.
Next, it’s off to Victorian London to scoop the Royal Society’s top prize for scientific discovery, a plan threatened by Darwin’s double-crossing and Queen Victoria’s (a brilliantly splenetic performance from Imelda Staunton) irrational hatred of pirates.
Like the book, the film is doused in liberal applications of Douglas Adams and Monty Python-style humour. Combine that with Aardman’s characteristic comic charm and you’ve 88 really very enjoyable minutes.
You’re to pay attention though, the frames are squeezed full of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them visual gags and set details which should reward repeat viewings come DVD release time. Look out for a song by a modern comedy duo (I won’t spoil it by revealing which) that makes an uproarious appearance on the soundtrack too.
It’s great that the film’s joke hit-rate is so high, as the two strands of plot don’t tie together as convincingly as they might, and the Pirate Captain’s loyalty vs. personal greed quandary is a familiar storytelling standard. Were the script not so sharp and the sets not so packed with wonderful detail, things could have turned out fairly workaday. Since this is Aardman at its best though, there’s nothing workaday about it.
The supporting voice cast is strong, with Russell Tovey providing more than his fair share of laughs as Albino Pirate (the Captain’s crew comprises Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), Pirate with Scarf, (Martin Freeman) and Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen)), while who else but Brian Blessed makes an appearance as Pirate King in the film’s second half.
As is often the case, the 3D adds little but murk, muted colours and those unflattering red lines the glasses leave on your nose. The odd cutlass pokes out of the screen from time to time, and some ham floats prettily away after being sliced Dogtanian-style, but I’d have thought you’d miss very little if you were to seek out a 2D screening.
I don’t know if I’m alone I this, but something about watching the credits roll on a really great animated film puts a lump in my throat more than any other genre, and especially so when it comes to Aardman’s stop-motion.
Somehow it’s easier for me, a layman, to grasp the stupefying number of man hours and ton of human endeavour involved in pulling something like The Pirates! off than it is to understand the (no-doubt comparably intensive) slick SFX work of say, a Transformers film. People did this with their hands, my brain tells me while I’m watching name after name scroll by on screen, and my overwhelming response is one I experience too rarely in the cinema: it’s gratitude.
Sappy as all that may sound, The Pirates!, and a studio like Aardman is worth getting sappy over. Like custard creams and our highly evolved piss-taking skills, Wallace and Gromit are something people living in the UK can feel uncomplicated national pride over without getting dragged down by pesky first world Empire guilt. If Aardman is ever forced to make good on its threat to leave the UK if proposed tax incentives for home-grown drama aren’t extended to animation, then we as a nation may as well have an early bath.
In short then, The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists is tons of fun, boasts a good number of nerdy science jokes and some very special cameos from historical characters. It’ll warm your cockles, and if it doesn’t, then I might suggest you check whether or not they’ve fallen off.