The life of a notorious swash buckler on the high seas is a thrilling one, but amongst the vast consumption of rum bottles and the incessant timber shivering, the opportunity to be awarded the coveted Pirate of the Year Award ranks high on the list of achievements. This is the prime concern of The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) and his rag–tag crew (Martin Freeman, Brendan Gleeson, Russell Tovey and Ashley Jensen), who have competition for the trophy in the form of American rivals Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek).
Docking in London with new associate Charles Darwin (David Tennant) in tow, the captain plans on capitalising on his exotic and incredibly rare Dodo (whom he has mistakenly believed to be a parrot up until now) by winning the Royal Society’s top prize for scientific discovery and earning him the right amount of gold to win him his cherished prize. His plans are thwarted by the dastardly, pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton, having the most fun here) and with his pirate reputation in tatters, he must fight to regain his dignity and escape the gallows. .
While Arthur Christmas managed that appease that modern, Pixar-fed audience whilst remaining true to the spirit of Aardman, for all the sterling work and effort involved here, ‘Pirates’ doesn’t quite delivers the same. It’s never less than entertaining, but it just feels dated at times, and the stop-animation (however brilliantly it’s done) sometimes hinders the storytelling process, and doesn’t quite keep up with the break-neck pacing the makers are aiming for. Maybe it’s a sad indictment of these attention-deficit times, but that energy which served the digitally-rendered ‘Arthur’ so well is a little absent here. You get those familiar, very English Aardman tropes, but rather than coming across as laugh-out-loud funny, they’re merely amusing and it’s almost as if director Peter Lord was unwilling to look beyond that tried and tested formula and push the (pirate) boat out a little more.
As ever, the character work is great, as are the long, illustrious list of acting talents who breathe life into the creations. The reinterpretation of Queen Vic as some kind of steam-punk/cyborg hybrid is nothing short of genius and many of the film’s best moments occur when she’s around. Grant is fine as the foppish leader, but his crew mates, particularly Martin Freeman and Brendan Gleeson, appear to be having the most fun here.
It’s a great-looking film and the exquisite craftsmanship is everything you expect from a production like this. The intricate, highly-detailed sets are truly a work of art. Unfortunately, being presented in 3D (a gimmick Aardman may have been initially reluctant to embrace) adds nothing whatsoever to proceedings and it ends up sitting uneasy with the very quant style of animation. Asking audiences to splash out extra for the privilege of wearing cumbersome, wholly unnecessary goggles (which distract from the film’s artistry) is totally unacceptable.
In many ways, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists is still a fun and amiable children’s film, but in the current marketplace, it just feels like a minor step backwards for Aardman when it should have been a major leap ahead.