DIR: Peter Lord, Jeff Newitt • WRI: Gideon Defoe • PRO: Julie Lockhart, Peter Lord, David Sproxton • DOP: Frank Passingham • DES: Norman Garwood • Cast: Hugh Grant, Brian Blessed, Jeremy Piven
Pirates – seriously, who knew? Scuttled in early Hollywood by the far more popular western, the pirate movie was left adrift for decades, coming into port every now and again only to find nary a piece of eight at the box office (cf. Polanski’s The Pirates (1986), Cutthroat Island (1995)). Then those Disney ride Johnny Depp vehicle movies came along and suddenly, after some 80 years, everyone was hungry for pirate movies. But while the box office exploded, there was little denying the quality of those films diminished rapidly, as they began to take themselves seriously.
Thankfully, here’s a pirate movie that doesn’t take anything seriously, especially not pirates!
Aardman Animations have proven themselves to be the world’s greatest producers of (mainstream) stop-motion animation through their Wallace & Gromit movies, Chicken Run and TV series such as Morph, Creature Comforts and Shaun the Sheep. Now teamed with distributors Sony (their relationship with DreamWorks ended after the disastrous digital animation Flushed Away), the Bristol-based masters have produced what is probably their greatest work yet, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists.
The family adventure is based on a series of comedy novels by Gideon Defoe, which are not exactly aimed at children, but have been translated here to appeal to pretty much anyone with eyes, ears and a sense of humour.
Set in the early 1800s, the story follows a pirate captain called The Pirate Captain, and his crew of similarly descriptively named misfits. What The Pirate Captain lacks in plundering success he makes up for in boundless enthusiasm and self-delusional egomania. Up against far superior competition for the “Pirate of the Year Award”, he is desperate for a get-rich-quick scheme when he boards the bootyless HMS Beagle and takes young scientist Charles Darwin captive.
Before he is fed to the sharks, Darwin informs The Pirate Captain that his precious parrot Polly, who is very clearly not a parrot, is in fact a dodo, and thus worth a fortune. And so the crew set sail for London, where the dread Queen Victoria keeps a careful lookout for pirates, whom she detests above all things.
The adventure that ensues is delightful; simple enough for kids to follow but with enough minor twists to keep adults from feeling like they’ve sailed these seas before. Thankfully, unlike the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, The Pirates! sticks to general pirate adventuring and doesn’t descend into supernatural nonsense.
The stop-motion is as wonderful as we have come to expect from Aardman; and then some. Eschewing traditional plasticine in favour of a more durable, and realistic-looking plastic, The Pirates! has texture and gloss that most live-action features fail to achieve nowadays. In the incredible digital worlds of Pixar and DreamWorks films, where everything has shape and gloss, nothing looks like you could really touch it if you could somehow get inside the movie. But here, with actual objects that actual artists have actually sculpted, the world looks as physically accessible as it does inviting. The divinity is in the detail however. Every scene is riddled with more visual gags than there is time to ingest – one character sports a Blue Peter badge in his hat; posters in London advertise ‘street urchin throwing contests’; the Swiss coat of arms has a giant corkscrew sticking out of it.
The voice talent on display is top notch. Hugh Grant returns to the grandeur of the mid-‘90s as The Pirate Captain, leaving you wondering why he hasn’t been in the recording studio since About a Boy. Sounding like only Hugh Grant can, his voice, like his best characters, sails through a vast array of emotions and delivers both quips and verbal faux pas with unexpected aplomb. David Tennant voices Darwin as a timid, socially awkward but also quite conniving little wretch, while Martin Freeman gets across the movie’s heart as the ship’s number two, Pirate With a Scarf. And as the villain, Imelda Staunton ups her game from Professor Umbridge to play the perfect queen bitch. Support comes from all sides with Brendan Gleeson and Brian Blessed chewing the microphone up and spitting out the chunks.
It’s impossible to get across just how funny this film is. Its visual gags conjure the heyday of The Simpsons. Musical queues range from The Clash to Flight of the Conchords. The dialogue borders on Pythonesque. When The Pirate Captain sees Darwin and his chimpanzee perform identical actions, he asks ‘Are you related?’ – a specious origin for The Origin of Species. The blatant yet unnoticed transvestite pirate, Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (sporting a large ginger beard that clashes with her blonde hair), is ripped from the best classical farce.
The Pirates! is action-packed, unpredictable and agreeably sweet, and two-and-a-half years in the making it looks simply fantastic. But it’s greatest success is in how gut-achingly funny it is. There are truly enough gags here to keep every person of every age laughing from start to finish – joke by joke per minute this could be the funniest film since Airplane!
And if that doesn’t sell you on seeing this over The Hunger Games, well you were lost to begin with.
Rated G (see IFCO website for details)
The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists is released on 23rd March 2012