THE PIRATES! IN AN ADVENTURE WITH SCIENTISTS (U): On General Release Wednesday 28th March
Aardman set the bar so high with their short animations (the pinnacle of which was 1993’s The Wrong Trousers) that when they made the transition to full-length features, expectations were astronomically high. While 2005’s The Curse Of The Were Rabbit was excellent, it fell short of being an instant classic and follow-ups Flushed Away and last year’s Arthur Christmas were well-meaning but didn’t live up to Aardman’s claymation predecessors.
With The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists, Aardman’s first stop motion animation in seven years, they’ve managed to partly recapture the idiosyncratic charm that made them such outstanding filmmakers and yet there’s still something missing which doesn’t quite make it shine.
It follows the buffoonish Pirate Captain (voice by Hugh Grant) and his motley shipmates as he strives to win Pirate Of The Year despite the obvious handicap that he’s not very good at the two essential pirate skills of plundering or looting. When the crew inadvertently sink The Beagle and kidnap a nervous Charles Darwin (who’s having trouble getting a girlfriend), he points out that the Captain’s parrot is in fact the last surviving Dodo and the crew set sail for London where they hope to scoop a reward for Best Scientific Discovery.
It’s an adventure that features a furious Queen Victoria, a monkey butler that provides his own subtitles, the Elephant Man, Jane Austen and a pirate dressed like Elvis and voiced by Brian Blessed. As such it’s all wonderfully daft stuff and frankly there could be no animation studio other than Aardman that could do Gideon Defoe’s book justice. The stop-motion is exactly the right medium for the old-fashioned frequently nonsensical comedy.
This being an Aardman production, the animation is expectedly first-class. There’s a fantastic attention to detail, enough to make you want you re-watch it just so that you read the jokes scrawled in the backgrounds. What’s particularly impressive with stop motion is that behind even the most seemingly spontaneous quirk lay hours of painstaking work (something which made the wonderfully off-kilter A Town Called Panic even more of a joy).
It’s certainly funny (although its tack is constant chuckles rather than hearty belly laughs), the characters are instantly likable (The Pirate Captain in particular given great life by the ever-foppish Hugh Grant) and it’s pitched perfectly for both adults and children.
Its brisk pace is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s kept light and fresh, on the other, when there’s a lull, there’s time to realise how wispy the plot actually is and how neglected some of the colourful crew are. With a bit more meat on its bones, Pirates! could have been a much more satisfying experience.
For those who read the books, there’s also something about the humour which doesn’t quite translate to the big screen. Defoe’s books were always aimed at adults despite their silliness – Aardman’s version bridges the gap between an adult and child audience splendidly but doesn’t capture the wry asides of the source material. And no matter the skill of those doing the adaptation, some things are just funnier written down.