Chicken Run, Curse of the Were-rabbit, The Wrong Trousers; if any of these clay-animated films sound familiar, then Britain’s greatest cinematic exponent, Aardman Studios, will be no mystery. If those titles hold no meaning, please greet with open arms their latest film, an adaptation of the first Gideon Coe Pirate novels, The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists! or, as it is titled in North America, The Pirates! Band of Misfits!.
The plot can be described as nothing other than insane: the pirate crew, led by the charismatic Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) and completed by Pirate with Scarf (Martin Freeman), Albino Pirate (Russell Tovey) and Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen), are a terrible crew, the laughing stock of the high seas and Blood Island. Forever the optimist, Pirate Captain believes that this is his year to win the Pirate of the Year competition, even though he is vastly surpassed by his peers Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) and Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven). After being shot down, he retires from piracy, eventually happening upon the ship of a young and simple-minded Charles Darwin (David Tennant) who becomes instantly interested in the crew because their parrot isn’t a parrot at all; it’s the last living dodo. From that root springs forth the pirates’ adventure with scientists.
The latest Aardman production stars a rag-tag bunch of character actors from British television and cinema along with a couple of more internationally-known names, not just limited to the fairly extensive bunch already named: Imelda Staunton, Brendan Glesson and Brian Blessed also turn up. They’re uniformly excellent; the major plaudits belong to Hugh Grant, who puts in a fantastic vocal performance as the Captain.
Any animated film can have a good cast; DreamWorks in particular have worked with a spectacular range of actors. In most cases they use their natural voice. The result is films that are nothing more than star vehicles, and furthermore, as a cinematic tool it keeps the viewer at arm’s length. On the flip side, just like Pixar, Aardman use voice actors who embody the characters. The cast list may be star-studded, but there are very few occasions where their identities become a distraction.
That same idealism is present in the animation and comedy, and being an Aardman production both are equally important in capturing the studio’s unique character. First, the comedy. Whether it is in Wallace & Gromit or Pirates, the one word that can be used to tie them all together in terms of sensibility is Britishness. Within this catchment area, Pirates is sublime; it’s the small things, the simple one liners, the puns and the visual cues that make it work. Moreover it’s the machine-gun rate that jokes are fired, whether it is a brilliant one liner (“Blood Island… so named because it’s shaped like some blood”) or the idiotic jibes that the Captain makes about Charles Darwin’s legacy, if one joke doesn’t land, there will be another along in no time.
Then there are the objects and characters that populate the background, which take prominence in the second act, wherein the pirate crew embark upon London and meet a cluster of characters (inclusing Jane Austen, Joseph Merrick and Dr. Frankenstein), with pop culture gags aplenty. Akin to Curse of the Were-rabbit before it, Pirates is one of those films that cannot be fully processed with one viewing. With each new viewing, new gags stand out, making this the sort of gift that just keeps on giving.
The animation is equally intricate, which is expected with any of the remaining bastions of the clay form, whether it is Aardman in the UK or Laika Entertainment (Coraline) in North America. With a production cycle stretching over 5 years, the amount of time in the pre-production phase to design each scene, each character confirms the affection being poured on at every level of the storytelling process. Such a production cycle allows each and every aspect to be obsessed over and as such the film is gorgeous. Whether it is in the design or the cinematography, the layers in pirates will appeal to adults and children alike. The Pirates! In an adventure with Scientists! Can be enjoyed and adored by everyone.