The Pirates! is a series of (thus far) five books written by British author Gideon Defoe. Whilst not strictly speaking children’s books as the various themes and situations do require some maturity to fully comprehend, they are of sufficient scope as to be broadly entertaining to younger readers who can identify with the many colourful characters. Indeed such is their appeal that director Peter Lord (of Chicken Run fame) felt that they were ripe for the kind of treatment that only Aardman Animations can deliver, so, together with the author writing the screenplay and the backing of not only Aardman but Sony Animations and a gaggle of similarly enthusiastic producers, who have all had fingers in the (stop motion) animation pie, The Pirates! first tall tale is born. Taking its narrative from two of the written books: An Adventure with Scientists! (from which the film takes its title – unless you’re in America where it is known under its production, or original title, as Band of Misfits) as the majority, and In an Adventure with Whaling, to a lesser degree, with other elements thrown in to stitch it all together in a mad tale of adventure. There is much to like in the film and while it might not quite have the polish of, say, Curse of the Were-Rabbit, it does have plenty of references and dense framing that almost require multiple viewings, if only the actual narrative could hold that kind of repeat. So, swash your buckles and shiver your timbers as we take a look at tonight’s feature presentation The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists in 3D.
Before we start, this film is clearly not supposed to be historically accurate, thus any date to situations are not to be taken as gospel. Also, whilst I’ll certainly not go, ahem, over board, there might be a few references that some might consider spoilers.
The main protagonist of the piece is (poster boy) Pirate Captain. When we first encounter him he settles an all out brawl between his crew, fighting over what the best thing about being a pirate is (looting or cutlasses giving our first indication that we are firmly into kid’s territory). We can see from his demeanour that the crew instantly obey him and are in some cases enamoured with him; he has their respect and devotion earned not through fear or bullying but by mutual admiration, shanties and a love of ham (the actual best thing about being a pirate – Ham Night). From this we can tell that Pirate Captain whilst being a pirate is actually a genuinely nice fellow, his gruff exterior and mammoth beard barely hiding his golden heart and it is this that draws us, and his crew, to him. Chosen to play Pirate Captain is Hugh Grant and, knowing what is in store for the character, he is perfect casting. Grant has made a career out of playing nice men who are put upon by life, but want little more than to have some measure of success and, as such, end up making poor decisions that hurt those around them – and this is exactly the story arc that Pirate Captain follows. It seems that for many years Pirate Captain has been entering the ‘Pirate of the Year’ competition only to be out done by his three main contemporaries at every turn. But with his faithful crew behind him and a chart expressing the law of averages that say it must be his turn this year, Pirate Captain heads to Blood Island (so called because it looks like some blood), the secret hide out of the pirates, to enter the competition.
Pirate Captain’s crew, much like himself, don’t have actual names, but are referred to by their various attributes, this is something that is made very clear in the books but is not quite so obvious in the film, thus characters are called The Pirate with a Scarf – because he wears a scarf (also referred to as Number Two, second in command), The Pirate with Gout– because he has gout - The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate – because it’s a woman dressed as a man (surprisingly common apparently) and The Albino Pirate – because he’s albino. These attributes come to define the characters since there is pretty much no actual development given; it’s not that kind of film - though careful voice casting has once again proved well for the film. Pirate with a Scarf is brought to life by Martin Freeman (whose filmic career seems to know no bounds at the moment) and he gives a voice of conscience and calming reason to Pirate Captain’s mood swings and more hare-brained ideas. His amiable voice gives credence to this character and we listen, understand and side with his advice – this makes for the friction and eventual problems that Pirate Captain endures due to his own headstrong ideas without reason and, perhaps, forms the backbone of the script. Theirs is the most developed relationship, a kind of brothers in arms, that is very warming and identifiable so when it is strained (eventually breaking) there is clear emotional involvement which helps to draw you into the characters plight. The rest of the crew, as alluded to above, have very little to add, though Albino Pirate’s devotion to Polly the ship’s mascot is akin to breaking a child’s heart when things go bad. The actors chosen to give recognisable tones include Brendan Gleeson (Gout) and Ashley Jensen (Curvaceous) but really they have very little to actually do.
Once in the tavern on Blood Island we meet the Pirate Captain’s competition, all of whom are vastly superior in the pirating stakes providing you measure pirate ranking by amounts of plunder and charisma; both of which are necessary requisites for winning ‘Pirate of the Year’. It is their taunting of Pirate Captain that furthers his passion to take on and win the competition, only to have it dashed by repeated attempts at plundering vessels that have nothing worth plundering on them. It is on one such ship that we are introduced to Charles Darwin, a character that will shape the fortunes of Pirate Captain in more ways than one. Darwin is brought to life by a barely recognisable David Tennant who manages to imbue the character with pathos, villainy and heroism for he too has a similar journey to that of Pirate Captain. Indeed it seems Darwin is as much a failure as Pirate Captain in his own achievements (he’ll never get a girlfriend!) and this leads him to make his own questionable decisions; for when he claps eyes on the ships mascot, Polly an extremely fat parrot – in fact a surviving dodo – he persuades Pirate Captain to come to London with the promise of the accolades and rewards the scientific community will bestow for the return of a live dodo in the annual ‘Scientist of the Year’ competition. London, of course, is a no go area for pirates, Queen Victoria has seen to it that the Royal Navy has all but stamped out that villainy. With clever photography and Tennant’s canny dialogue we are led to believe that he is the baddie of the piece, when, in fact, he is just mislead, misunderstood and misused. For the real nasty piece of work is that of the Queen herself! In typical Aardman style the Queen is given all the pantomime villainy with layers of boo-hiss-ability; not only does she rule by screaming, but her actual motives are even more sinister.
However, Pirate Captain, sick of his own failures and ignoring the pleas of those closest to him, sees the Science Competition as an opportunity to gain the glory he feels he so richly deserves; and so begins the slow decent into betrayal, distrust and heartache that all such characters must face before they can find the humility in themselves ready for the rich redemption that they do actually deserve. As such the tale is quite predictable in its path, in much the same way that most of the Aardman Animations films are. However, where they do score a lot of points is with the amount of material they cram into their frames and this film is no exception. Take a look at every set, within it you will find many, many sight gags, lists, puns and jokes that not only give you something to come back to on repeat viewings but also make up a visually very exciting picture to look at – it's not busy in a ‘George Lucas’ throw-as-much-rubbish-in-the-frame as you can, rather it draws the eye to how intricate and involving each scene is. And being Aardman there are some terrific set pieces that are typically out of their imagination; in this film it's the bath scene. The premise is a masked thief tries to steal Polly from Pirate Captain and a series of mad events sees the entire crew bobsleighing down the mansion's various staircases in Curvaceous’ bath tub to stop the kidnapping. The whole scene is filled with the kind of visual gags, slapstick and wild humour that make Aardman the top of this type of animation.
Sadly though this really isn't quite enough to sustain the runtime, let alone repeat viewings. The air of predictability, the fact that the characters journeys are so short and clear cut as well as the feeling that we haven’t really gotten to know them well enough to go adventuring seems to tip the balance towards an ok film rather than a great one. The makers go to great lengths to try and give history to the sets, as if the Pirates have had plenty of adventures, are firm friends and will go anywhere and do anything for each other – hence the break up scene playing as so poignant. But, because we haven’t seen any of it and the film races along at a vast pace, we have little time to become fully invested in them. Characters such as Wallace and Gromit have had numerous TV shows and are therefore known to the audience, as such a film can take them just about anywhere and we’d follow. The Pirates would have benefited from such history as the film itself is great fun and packed full of gags. It’s just that it is missing that special something to really give it that push into greatness. Perhaps I’m being a little too cynical for there is much to enjoy, but with Aardman’s pedigree I expected something more. As it is, children seem to adore it, certainly the neighbour's kids were jumping up and down with joy when I told them I have the film to look at and perhaps that is where its fortunes really lay. The film is certainly not dead in the water and I’d still like to see some continuing journeys. And perhaps that's the best comment to it leave on.
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