Review – The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists

I was privileged to attend a press screening of the new Aardman film about a month ago. After a smorgasbord of free pirate-related souvenirs and drinks in the bar (I settled on a Coke), the one and only Brian Blessed, who voices a character in the film, gave a small speech before the show. He didn’t actually say anything much related to the film, instead settling for an enthusiastic “GORDON’S ALIVE!” which nonetheless set the audience alight. Because of a press embargo I wasn’t able to post a review until its release date; I was nonetheless very keen to write about it as soon as possible. Enjoy the review.

Review – The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists

2012, 88mins, TBC, Dir. Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt, starring Hugh Grant, Salma Hayek, Jeremy Piven.

The latest offering from the irresistible animation studios Aardman is a brisk and spirited adaptation from the first of a series of children’s novels by Gideon Defoe. It’s a supremely outlandish adventure tale of a crew of  hapless, accident-prone pirates, led by the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), who in search of booty accidentally destroys Charles Darwin’s Beagle. But that’s not all – there’s a ‘Pirate of the Year’ contest on the rocks, and the Pirate Captain is keen to prove his daredevil enemies wrong by bringing home some loot.

If that all sounds a bit strange, then you’re completely right. The Pirates! is by far the oddest feature film given to us yet from Aardman. Everything from its bewildering subtitle (an adventure with scientists?) to its voice-acting, in-jokes, sight-gags and dialogue has a firm, unashamed sense of the oddball. It has intelligent monkeys, albino pirates, sudden and impossible changes of dress – even a cameo from the elephant man. It would be utterly criminal to reveal anything more, but you get the picture.

You could put this sense of strangeness down to the lack of a driving narrative; the film feels like it has less of a consistent storyline than a series of extravagant set-pieces, or sketches, and it feels as choppy as the water our characters sail on. Nevertheless, it manages to be consistently funny, and the characters are brilliantly written and performed. Charles Darwin, played by David Tennant, is depicted as a complete loner with only his wordless primate for company; the Pirate Captain – with a voice that is Hugh Grant’s but barely recognisable – a loveable yet comparatively soft sailor; Queen Victoria, Imelda Staunton, a supremely angry monarch who just happens to know how to wield a samurai sword. There are also contributions from Brendan Gleeson, Lenny Henry and Martin Freeman, amongst others, as fellow pirates.

All in all, you have to admire the craftsmanship of the thing. Aardman, with Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt at the helm, once again do a fantastic job in animating the film, utilising both clay-animation and the odd bit of CGI. The characters move with splendid fluidity and the action sequences are tremendous fun. The simple fact that a few of the extravagant sets made by the filmmakers only appear for a matter of minutes show the astounding attention to detail and commitment by the studio to making great films. But can The Pirates! be called great? Well, some may have problems with its plot,  but the silliness of its premise and its equally silly gags are just enough as far as some audiences are concerned.

Notice the Blue Peter badge on the right…

4 out of 5

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