by Rob Simpson
Arthur Christmas, 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, and completed by pirate with scarf, albino pirate and surprisingly curvaceous pirate (those are really their names) are a terrible crew, a 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, Cutlass Liz and Black Bellamy. After being shot down, he retires to his life of piracy, eventually they happen upon the ship of a young and simple-minded Charles Darwin who becomes instantly interested in the crew because their parrot isn’t a parrot, 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 including but by no means exclusive to Hugh Grant, David Tennant, Imelda Staunton, Russell Tovey, Brendan Glesson and Brian Blessed, as well as more globally known names in Salma Hayek and Jeremy Piven. All of whom are excellent; the major plaudits belong to Hugh Grant who puts in a fantastic vocal performance as the pirate 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, 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 a name can be attached, these are living breathing characters.
That same idealism is present in the animation and comedy, and being an Aardman production both are equally important in capturing the studios oeuvre. First the comedy, whether it is in Wallace & Gromit or the Pirates, the one word that can be used to thematically tie them all together is Britishness. Within this catchment area, the pirates is sublime; it’s the small things, the simple one liner, the puns and the visual cues. 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 pirate captain makes about Charles Darwin’s legacy, if one joke isn’t funny there will be another along in no time.
Then there are the objects and characters that populate the background. Which is no greater than it is in the second act where the pirate crew embark upon London and meet a cluster of characters, whether it is Jane Austen, Joseph Merrick or Dr Frankenstein, which pop culture gags aplenty too. Akin to the Curse of the Were-rabbit before it, The Pirates is one of those films that cannot be fully processed with one viewing. With each new viewing, new things appear, making this a film 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 of every level of the story telling 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.
In the UK the film will make its money back in a heartbeat and rightly so, when Aardman are on form they are untouchable. Whether you are able to embrace the comedy and charm of this film depends on how willing and open you are to something that is the quintessence of British surrealism. Whether Aardman means anything or not, the pirates in an adventure with Scientists demands your attention.