Swashbuckling, Queen Victoria, a dodo, Charles Darwin and plenty of Aardman charm.
It’s 1837 and Britannia rules the waves, almost. Pirates still have a stronghold around the West Indies, particularly those who are contesting the prestigious Pirate of the Year award. There’s Peg-Leg Hastings, the Salma Hayek-voiced Cutlass Liz (aka the Butcher of Barbados) and Black Bellamy, who makes his entrance inside a whale stacked full of booty. There’s also the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), a bit of a joke in these parts thanks to his buffoonish crew – or Band of Misfits to make use of the film’s US title – and general lack of piracy skills. He hasn’t even got a proper parrot, that job is instead taken up by his beloved Polly, who happens to be a dodo. When the crew chance upon a young-ish Charles Darwin (David Tennant) in the middle of an expedition the rare bird understandably attracts his attraction and so begins an adventure with scientists…
The Pirates! began their adventures in paperback. Gideon Defoe wrote their first in 2004 and has since produced another four instalments. An Adventure with Scientists! was followed by An Adventure with Whaling!, then Communists!, then Napoleon! and, most recently, the Romantics! just a few months ago. As the number of books has increased so too has the acclaim with the likes of Eric Idle and Ardal O’Hanlon expressing their appreciation. Unsurprisingly the film industry caught onto this success, though we should be grateful that it is Aardman who recognised their cinematic potential. After all, who better to capture their quintessentially British sense of humour than the studio behind Creature Comforts, Morph and Wallace and Gromit?
Those previous efforts look decidedly small-scale compared to the epic scope of The Pirates!. Even the Wallace and Gromit feature-length spin-off didn’t involve globe-trotting, the seven seas and a recreation of Victorian London. It should be pointed out immediately that all look utterly terrific right down to the tiniest of details. Stop-motion for the most part – thus maintaining that distinctive Aardman style – bits of both 2D and computer animation are also employed when necessary; the recreation of ocean waves is a particularly impressive piece of the latter. And yet for all of this grand scale The Pirates! never losing sight of the more personal touches. It may not have the cosiness and sense of familiarity we find in the Wallace and Gromit films, but it does possess that same attention to character detail and the finely-honed throwaway gag. The Blu-ray edition is especially appealing in this respect as the temptation to freeze-frame in order to catch all of the punning shop signs, posters, newspapers and magazines – Hello! gets re-imagined as Ahoy! – is a strong one.
Importantly the gags – and the overall tone, for that matter – maintain their British-ness with few concessions towards anodyne international appeal. We get custard creams, a Blue Peter badge and Tenpole Tudor’s Swords of a Thousand Men over the opening titles. We get the voice talents of Lenny Henry, Ashley Jensen and Brian Blessed to sit alongside Hayek, although the US edition (not included here) did sacrifice Russell Tovey in favour of Anton Yelchin. It’s these kind of touches which really do up the appeal and separate The Pirates! from so many of today’s second-rate mainstream animated features. Furthermore, it never gets too clever for its own good. Certainly, adults are most definitely accommodated (the use of a Flight of the Conchords track is a particularly nice touch), but so too are the kids. There’s plenty of slapstick of the kind found in the Wallace and Gromit adventures or Shaun the Sheep on TV and there’s Mr. Bobo, Charles Darwin’s trained ape, who manages to steal the entire movie without once uttering a word.
There are flaws. The pace slackens a little in the middle as have the majority of Aardman features to date. (Their more finely honed short films, especially the original Creature Comforts and The Wrong Trousers, remain the studio’s best work.) With that said, The Pirates! is a model of economy in comparison to the live-action Pirates of the Caribbean movies, particularly the incredibly bloated and self-indulgent third instalment. It’s also a great deal more fun and that, ultimately, is what really matters. Director Peter Lord hints at a sequel during the audio commentary and it’s hard to begrudge his desire to make one. If he can maintain the entertainment value of this one there’s no reason not to anticipate further adventures.
The Pirates! have come to DVD and Blu-ray in a whole range of releases. There’s a standalone DVD, a standalone Blu-ray, a standalone 3D Blu-ray and there’s all of the above with an exclusive artwork print if you order direct from Aardman. For review purposes the standard Blu-ray edition was provided.
In terms of the presentation, the film comes across mostly fine in high def. Colours are excellent, detail and clarity are superb and the both sound and image are free of dirt and damage. As noted in the bulk of this review the inclination to freeze frame in order to pick up on all the sight gags is a strong one, and the presentation doesn’t pose any problems in this regard. However, during the opening Columbia logo banding is immediately apparent and it crops up throughout the feature whenever mist or particularly complicated cloud formations are involved. It’s by no means a major problem, but can prove distracting once you’ve spotted its presence. Elsewhere there are no flaws to speak of and this goes for the soundtrack too, here present as DTS-HD Master Audio. Subtitles are also available, should you require them, in English, English for the hard-of-hearing and Hindi.
Extras are a solid bunch, particularly the two featurettes. ‘From Stop to Motion’ is a 21-minute whirlwind tour through the production process interviewing many of the key players and even the guy who makes the miniature glasses. There’s a great deal of detail to be gleaned here and, thankfully, very little in the way of the usual EPK fluff. It’s also incredibly snappily paced and, as such, over before you know it. If you’re looking for more, though, then the shorter ‘Creating the Bath Tub Sequence’ offers an in-depth look at that particular set-piece, plus we have a commentary with Peter Lord, co-director Jeff Newitt and editor Justin (son of John) Krish. The latter wasn’t quite as technical as I had hoped, but it does provide plenty of discussion of the various difficulties faced in mounting particular scenes or shots and also handily points out the amount of computer assistance. Alongside these adult-orientated extras we also find an interactive mix-and-match game for the youngsters plus a batch of trailers for other Sony animated titles both old and new.
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