The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists

Review by Matt Bochenski @MattLWLies

Directed by

Jeff Newitt Peter Lord

Starring

Ashley Jensen Brendan Gleeson Hugh Grant

Anticipation.

Aardman is the single most important voice in British animation today. Every new release is to be treated as a landmark.

Enjoyment.

Slick, sharp, funny and thrilling. Pirates! is never less than tremendous fun – but never quite a masterpiece.

In Retrospect.

A lack of focus leaves Pirates! short of iconic moments that linger in the memory.

There’s adventure all right, and science in spades, but someone buried the piracy in Aardman’s latest stop-motion treasure.

When discussing the giants of 21st century animation, it’s easy to lose oneself between the twin poles of Pixar and Ghibli. Though at opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum (one, a gleaming monument to techno modernism; the other, a hushed reminder of hand-crafted values), their work nevertheless shares an emotional poignancy and dramatic piquancy that has seen it elevated above a crowded field of pretenders.

Somehow we forget that there’s a homegrown powerhouse adding a British voice to the conversation, squirrelled away in a suburb of Bristol. Aardman Animations may go quietly about its business, yet its creative process encapsulates both the shimmering CG wizardry and time-honoured artisanship of its American and Japanese rivals. But the unique ingredient? The really special stuff? That’s the Britishness.

There may only have been three stop-motion features in the past 12 years, but each has been an exquisitely crafted jewel. And if their latest, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, doesn’t quite reach the vertiginous heights of Chicken Run or Curse of the Were-Rabbit, it still displays a thumbprint of brilliance. Effortlessly charming, superbly performed and speckled with that inimitable island wit, Pirates! is generous to the point of profligacy with in-jokes, sight gags and dizzyingly assembled details.What it lacks – critically if not fatally – is focus.

The fault may lie with Gideon Defoe’s source material. His series of novels, The Pirates! In an Adventure with… (Scientists, Communists, Romantics, Moby Dick and Napoleon have all filled in the blank), are lively romps through a loosely imagined world of ersatz Victoriana. Light-hearted and sharply sketched, they are nevertheless widescreen, episodic vignettes that demand a careful recalibration for the screen.

You can certainly see the appeal for director Peter Lord. It’s not just that the subject is in vogue; there’s a richness to both the jerry-rigged world of Defoe’s imagining and the sun-dappled vistas of the film’s nineteenth-century Caribbean milieu.

Lord has seized greedily on the chance to flex Aardman’s creative muscles. Brine-soaked and barnacle encrusted, Pirates! is easily the studio’s most visually extravagant effort to date, not to mention its first film in 3D, which, without making any appreciable dramatic impact, adds an extra layer of richness to the breathtaking scenery.

Whether it’s the pirate port of Blood Island (salty shacks, rum-drenched saloon, Napoleon Blownapart’s cannon shop); Victorian London (smog-shrouded docks, imposing Gothic facades, bobbies with sandwiches under their hats); or the iron flagship of the Queen’s fleet (a belching steampunk vision of retro-futurism), Pirates! is a dazzling spectacle.

Bestriding this world like, well, not a colossus exactly – more a down-on-his-luck sea pup – is the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant). A ham-munching, shanty-singing, luxuriantly bearded would-be superstar, for two decades the Pirate Captain has been frustrated in his quest to land top prize at the Pirate of the Year awards.

Throughout this extended period of personal embarrassment his crew, including Pirate with Scarf (Martin Freeman), Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen) and Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), have stuck loyally by him, bonded together by the twin rivets of weekly ‘Ham Nite’ and a shared affection for the ship’s mascot, Polly the parrot.

Just as the Pirate Captain’s latest bid for awards season glory seems destined to end in humiliation, fate throws a curve ball in the shape of Charles Darwin (David Tennant); a little-known scientist nursing a secret crush and a chip on his shoulder.

In Polly, Darwin sees a chance to ingratiate himself with the scientific establishment back in London; in ‘Chuck’, the Pirate Captain sees doubloon-signs, redemption and the recognition that has for so long eluded him. So it’s off to London, the Royal Society and the court of Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), where the pirates will discover that they aren’t the only ones well-versed in the dark arts of betrayal.

If that sounds as unlikely as it is convoluted, well, as the Pirate Captain gamely puts it, reflecting on the trials ahead: “It’s only impossible if you stop to think about it.”

So Lord doesn’t stop for a second – throwing in a ‘manpanzee’, a secret society, cunning disguises, and a cracking set piece in Darwin’s London mansion involving a monkey, a bathtub, a stuffed elephant, a stolen parrot and an Easter Island statue.

This is Pirates! at its frantic best – leaving you at once scratching your head with wonder, and simply shaking it in amazement.

Almost imperceptibly, however, the gigantic smile that the film has fixed to your face starts to fade. Lord grapples unsuccessfully with the book’s episodic nature, leaving his film big on texture but short on structure. Though it flits confidently between geographical locations, it moves uncertainly between dramatic loci.

Every time you think it’s set a fixed course, the film lurches off in some new direction. From the Pirate of the Year competition to Darwin’s duplicity; from Queen Victoria’s homicidal mania back to the Captain’s arch nemesis Black Bellamy, audiences risk sea-sickness trying to keep up with Pirates!’s choppy narrative. In the midst of it all, the fate of a silent parrot (pure MacGuffin though it may be) isn’t enough to keep our emotional engagement anchored.

Compared to, say, the life-and-death stakes of Chicken Run, in which Mr and Mrs Tweedy presented a constant, sinister threat; or the unrequited romantic frisson between Wallace and Lady Tottington that elevated the climax of Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Pirates! feels both emotionally and dramatically insubstantial.

But perhaps the most surprising omission is the shortage of any actual pirating. Except for a single montage played for laughs, there’s almost nothing in the way of main brace-splicing, cannon-firing, Jolly Roger-raising, high seas buccaneering. There’s lots of adventuring and plenty of science, but a touch more of the old-school corsairing wouldn’t have hurt.

And so (contrary to the Pirate Captain’s instructions) you do start to think about it. And something unexpected happens: Pirates! comes back into focus in a new light, as metaphor, as the point at which Aardman has begun to reflect on itself. From a sneery motto above the gates of The Royal Society to the treachery of the royal court, Lord’s film is at its most purposeful when taking aim at the London establishment. Is that a coincidence, given Aardman’s well-groomed reputation as perennial outsiders, the little studio that beat the world at a game it wasn’t even playing?

Likewise, the Pirate of the Year show is a gaudy pastiche of the Oscars, one that transforms the Pirate Captain from failure (“We are rubbish compared to them”) to success story – against a brash American competitor no less – but only at the cost of his soul.

Though English to a tee in all other respects, here Aardman repudiates both the demands of a showbusiness industry that prizes glittering baubles over true craftsmanship, and that strain of chip-on-the-shoulder national defeatism that sees so many of our filmmakers (and entertainment pundits) kneeling at the feet of the Hollywood machine. Success, we learn, doesn’t mean compromising who you are, it means making the most of what you’ve got – a lesson that Aardman is well placed to impart.

Perhaps this is stretching the subtext of an 88-minute animated feature, but then Aardman is nothing if not multi-layered. And those rip-roaring surface pleasures remain – the frenetic imagination, the riotous adventure, the easy intelligence and, perhaps most enjoyable of all, a perfectly calibrated performance by Hugh Grant, whose rambunctious enthusiasm for the pirate life is infectious.

Does Pirates! rank alongside Aardman’s previous work as one of the crown jewels of British cinema? No, in fairness, not quite. For all its multiple joys and manifest charm, it lacks a final frisson of magic. Is it head and shoulders above the trudging mediocrity of the mainstream? And then some. It’s just that, as the Pirate with Scarf says, “Sometimes, you can’t just say ‘Arrr!’ and make everything better.”

Published 28 Mar 2012

Tags: Aardman

Anticipation.

Aardman is the single most important voice in British animation today. Every new release is to be treated as a landmark.

Enjoyment.

Slick, sharp, funny and thrilling. Pirates! is never less than tremendous fun – but never quite a masterpiece.

In Retrospect.

A lack of focus leaves Pirates! short of iconic moments that linger in the memory.

Related Reviews

How famous voices became a staple of Disney animation

By Jesc Bunyard

Moana directors Ron Clements and John Musker reflect on how Robin Williams broke the mould in Aladdin.

Aardman’s Early Man gets a delightful teaser trailer

By John Wadsworth

Take a first look at Nick Park’s claymation caveman adventure.

Inside Pixar

By Adam Woodward

LWLies reports from the beguiling Bay Area basecamp of one of the world titans of feature animation.

What are you looking for?

Little White Lies Logo

About Little White Lies

Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, we’ve been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.

Editorial

Design