Sunday, 1 April 2012

THE PIRATES! IN AN ADVENTURE WITH SCIENTISTS (2012) - 3 1/2 STARS

"Behind every captain, there's a crew. Sure, some of you are as ugly as a sea cucumber, some of you are closer to being a chair or coat rack than a pirate, and some of you are fish I've just dressed up in a hat..."


DIRECTOR: Peter LORD
STARRING: Hugh GRANT, Martin FREEMAN, David TENNANT, Salma HAYEK

Yaaarrrr me matees! For many, many years now Aardman Animations have charmed audiences with their delightful stories and 'clayful' characters beginning with Creature Comforts, followed by their triumphant Wallace and Gromit series and the chick-flick Chicken Run (two puns already!). Now they are back with the adventurous animation The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, which is based on the quirky novels from author Gideon Defoe, and once again they succeed in attracting some cracking stars with Hugh Grant (in his first animated film role) leading the colourful voice cast supporting him including Martin Freeman, David Tennant and Salma Hayek. However the film doesn't allow its stars to stand out and still contains the same loopy capered fun that audiences of all ages will come to expect. Anyway let's set sail and read on....

In 1837, the charismatic pirate captain known only as....Pirate Captain (Grant) leads his savvy crew including Number Two (Freeman) across the Seven Seas showing ruthlessness towards the British armies. However the Captain's main desire is to win the coveted Pirate of the Year award from rivals Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Hayek) to prove he isn't a rubbish pirate. During his quest, an attempted robbery onboard a ship sees the Captain encounter Charles Darwin (Tennant) who notices that the ship's parrot, Polly is in fact the world's last Dodo. Darwin manages to convince the Captain and his crew to come to London to showcase the bird to a special community fair but things get complicated when the pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) turns up but rather then having the Captain killed she pardons him instead knowing that she can exchange fortunes aplenty for him in return for the dodo. The Captain fails to realise the consequences of giving up Polly as it turns out the Queen is planning to serve the bird at a banquet and vows to try and rescue her.

Once again 'Aaaaarrr'dman look to have another slick and entertaining hit on their hands thanks to its family-orientated approach added in with the odd bit of dark humour. To us its our own Pixar which can only get better. The film's Victorian themed-setting provides the backdrop for the narrative where pirates are the outlaws across the Seven Seas with the different uses of humour thrown in (as well as a pirate-like soundtrack including songs from The Clash and Jimmy Cliff). One can't help but feel like you're watching an animated version of Blackadder, only less rude and more playful and here Aardman continue their obsession with cultural references and clever names on signs poking fun such as a dentist being named DE-CAY-ING or Jane Austen and the Elephant Man being a couple. Some more viewings should do the trick when it comes to looking out for all these little puns and nods. The animation also continues to be immaculate thanks to the dedicated work of those behind the scenes thanks to the clever uses of colour particularly the Pirate Bay being bright and glossy whereas Victorian London is shown as murky and sooty (as it pretty much was back in the day!). Character animation also plays a part in the film's success with many of the models designed to perfection particularly Martin Freeman's Number Two who practically shares the same facial look as the man voicing him. The voice cast relies mostly on British actors which proves an effective move with credit going to the director Peter Lord for the impeccable casting of Hugh Grant (in his comeback leading role) as the man to voice the jolly and suave Pirate Captain bringing much comedic depth to the character and making him a likeable hero. Freeman, Brendan Gleeson and Ashley Jensen are also natural choices for their varied roles as the crew with Tennant adding a bit of smart yet cowardly humour to his voice of Charles Darwin assisted by his monkey sidekick. An even more inspiring casting is Imelda Staunton (almost reprising her Professor Umbridge role in Harry Potter 5) as the cunning Queen Victoria who practically makes us dislike one of our own former monarchs with a deceitful performance. Finishing things off here, we have a couple of US stars contributing too with Entourage's Jeremy Piven and the sexy Salma Hayek voicing the Captain's two pirating rivals.

In all honesty, The Pirates isn't quite Aardman's best animated flick as it does lack the overall appeal to children who will probably not understand some of its humour as well as can be expected compared to adults who will probably enjoy the broader jokes more. It starts off a bit slow in the first quarter but once our pirating heroes arrive in London, it picks up more though sometimes children don't stay focused for that long. The lack of Nick Park's involvement is also noticeable here with the film just missing his magic when trying to entertain younger audiences which he managed to do well with in Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Finally while the cast is effective in the voice department, it is clear that the project had to involve a big-name star with Salma Hayek getting that opportunity as the sassy Cutless Liz who is sadly underused in this film and ultimately lackluster compared to Hayek's other recent character work as Kitty Softpaws in Puss in Boots.

VERDICT: Not as brilliant as Wallace and Gromit but at least superior to Chicken Run, Pirates shivers the timbers of its audiences with Aardman succeeding again with another animated hit. For those people who won't at least watch it, they may have to walk the plank, yaaarrrrr....

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