Review: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!

(Peter Lord, Jeff Newitt, 2012, UK)

Returning to Claymation after the computer generated damp squibs that were Flushed Away and last year’s Arthur Christmas failed to live up to the towering standards of 2005’s Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, quintessentially British animation troupe Aardman turn their blissfully idiosyncratic attentions to buccaneering in The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!, to mostly successful results. The film is a predominantly stop-motion affair slightly fused with CGI, creating a vast and abundantly rich canvas that looks and feels more animated and vibrant than any of the four truncated episodes of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise put together.

In an uncharacteristic and surprisingly effective stroke of genius, director Peter Lord has cast Hugh Grant as clueless swashbuckler Pirate Captain, clearly attempting to tap into the jaded star’s well-worn bumbling foppishness which he has so prosperously, and repetitively, pedalled since the early nineties. Heading up a supremely capable cast, boasting everyone from Imelda Staunton and Martin Freeman to Jeremy Piven and Salma Hayek, Grant excels as the hopeless protagonist desperate to be taken seriously as a booty-quaffing bandit.

Setting his sights on the coveted Pirate of the Year Award, Pirate Captain rallies his crew of amateurs, who’s names ingeniously span from Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson) and Pirate with Scarf (Freeman) to Albino Pirate (Russell Tovey) and Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen), in an effort to overcome his rivals Cutlass Liz (Hayek) and Black Bellamy (Piven), pirates who’s derring-do’s prove marginally more fruitful. Spanning the murky shores of Blood Island and a smoggy 19th Century London, their mission comes into contact with a heated Queen Victoria (Staunton), who vehemently hates pirates, and Charles Darwin (an excellent David Tennant), portrayed as a deceitful dandy who’s eyes are constantly on the prize, and particularly on Pirate Captain’s unusual parrot.

A large part of Aardman’s effortless charm lies in their abilities at blending a characteristically British sense of humour, which appeals as much to children as it does adults, with unstoppably inventive storytelling, peppered with characters who are instantly nuanced and watchable, carved from clay but expressing copious amounts of emotion. Due to the sumptuousness of the animation, with each carefully constructed frame branded with the type of lavish distinction that makes the work of an increasingly derivative animation wholesaler like Dreamworks look cheap and careless, as well as a robust voice cast, Pirates!‘s strengths lay in its plentiful visuals, which to some extent abandon the swamped narrative.

Comprising numerous plot points and characters, which are occasionally dwarfed by the film’s ceaseless forward thrust, Pirates! falls prey to its own adherence to the frameworks of family-orientated films, packing its bountiful storyline into a tight 88 minute running time. Although it dutifully doesn’t outstay its welcome as it bounds from one energetic sequence of slapstick to the next humorous sight gag with aplomb, the film all too readily relaxes into itself once the convoluted story heats up, with a third section that breathlessly trades sophistication with easy laughs at the expense of creating a memorable dénouement to the story and the characters, who quickly fade into the background.

Similarly, whereas large amounts of time and imagination has gone into visually depicting the period details, with the scenes set in London and, most remarkably, in Darwin’s expansively furnished house providing particular highlights, these are undone by unusual contemporary sources that feel alien within the world Aardman has magnificently assembled. Whereas a composed score would have complemented the visuals as well as the story, Lord has embedded a series of songs that jarringly and uncomfortably damage the historical look and feel of the film. Although Tenpole Tudor’s ‘Swords Of A Thousand Men’ plays up the film’s buoyancy in the trailer, it sits uncomfortably within the diegesis of the narrative, as does the strange choice of including a song from musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, something of an acquired taste with unfitting lyrics. Despite these niggling flaws, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! eventually proves to be something of a harmless treat and axiomatic of its studio: fun, charming and unreservedly creative, with Grant back on fine form.

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