The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! Review
Hot on the heels of last year’s Arthur Christmas, Aardman are back with this jolly escapade, which sees them return to the medium with which they have had most success: stop-motion animation (albeit enhanced with some CG tweaks here and there). The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (a mouthful of a title if ever there was one) may not be quite up to the standards set by Wallace & Gromit or Chicken Run, but it’s decent Easter holiday fun for all the family and boasts the finest cinematic pirate creation since Captain Jack Sparrow first swaggered on to our screens.
The brilliantly named Pirate Captain (voiced by the affable Hugh Grant) is a - yes - pirate captain who sails the high seas looking for booty to plunder, riches to squander and towns to terrorise. Unfortunately, he and his crew (among them Pirate with Scarf, Albino Pirate and – best of all – Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate) are a pretty useless bunch - possibly the least successful pirate crew ever to hoist the skull and crossbones. This small fact doesn’t stop the Pirate Captain from dreaming about one day winning the much-coveted Pirate of the Year award. On the cusp of throwing it all in, he happens across legendary scientist Charles Darwin - still some years away from his theories on natural selection - who proposes a way of winning the award: go to London and win the Scientist of the Year award instead, and claim the “untold riches” that comes with it.
As with the best Aardman efforts, it’s the attention to detail that makes The Pirates! a film to savour. There are loads of little in-jokes and background details that will have you smiling to yourself hours after the film’s finished; one of the best jokes (concerning a small ship called the Bounty) can be spotted during the closing credits sequence. The first half sees the film at its most enjoyable, with the layover in London being the chief highlight: the crew’s appearance at the Royal Society is up there with the best of Aardman’s work (watch out in particular for the motive behind designing a weather dirigible).
The voice cast are terrific to a man – Martin Freeman as the first officer, David Tennant as a surprisingly slippery Darwin and Imelda Staunton as Queen Victoria (and you’ve never seen Victoria like this before) are all spot on. Brian Blessed’s Pirate King and Darwin’s mute “man-panzee” manservant are good value too. But the film belongs to Grant - what I wouldn’t give to see him reprise the role in a live-action version. It’s a real shame that acting no longer appears to hold any interest for him.
Holding the film back from joining its more celebrated Aardman brethren though is the occasional whiff of desperation in the storytelling - as though the writers struggled to stretch the story (based on the book by Gideon Defoe) out to 90 minutes. The chuckles begin to thin out during a second half which turns the action dial up several notches on the way to a noisy finish. Perhaps feeling the need to compete with American blockbusters from the likes of Dreamworks and Disney, one wonders if Aardman were afraid that their particular brand of humour might get lost in the marketplace. Certainly that’s what happened with the likes of Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Flushed Away, and even Arthur Christmas failed to make much of an impression at the box-office stateside. Could it be that Aardman's style is simply better suited to the short film format?
Even so, a decent Aardman animation is always worth a trip to the cinema and this is no exception. A pleasingly silly riposte to the bloated bluster of that other piratical franchise, these particular Pirates more than deserve a follow-up of their own.