Monday, 4 March 2013

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (Film Review)

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! is probably the most surprising kind of film to see. Not because it's good, it's an Aardman Animations production for crying out loud, but because everything in here works. Be honest, if you were to hear just the description of the film, Hugh Grant as a piratical captain trying to gain his fortune via scientific competition with a dodo, would you expect a project where everything on screen works near perfectly?

Okay a bit of context for that. Hugh Grant plays an aging pirate captain called The Pirate Captain desperately attempting to win some kind of recognition and grand prize in the Pirate of the Year awards. Having never been successful before, it looks like he's doomed for failure yet again until Charles Darwin (as played by David Tennant) reveals that the ship's parrot is in-fact a long thought extinct dodo. Trying to sneak into the pirate hating London, the crew broker a deal with Darwin to win in a scientific contest, letting him take that prize, and using the rewards to give them a fighting chance in their own context. Hillary, as they say, ensues.

The thing to credit most here first and foremost is the voice acting. Despite the large number of recognisable names involved, it genuinely feels like no one is phoning in their performance. Some also display considerable talent and emotion with the role which translates well into their claymation characters. For someone pigeonholed into playing the awkwardly charming lead in romantic comedies for most of his life, Grant pulls off an excellent bombastic and eccentric pirate to the point where he's almost unrecognisable in the role. Serving as his foil, Martin Freeman is a perfect fit throughout and David Tennant does excellently well as the awkward lovesick Darwin; with Imelda Staunton playing a hilariously brilliant villainous Queen Victoria who all but steals the show. And these are just the core characters. Side roles are played by everyone from Russell Tovey to BRIAN BLESSED, and while not always outstanding they manage to at the absolute least be amusing in their performances. Whoever served as the vocal director behind this film deserves as much recognition for their contribution as the head animator.

Speaking of the animation, the real gags of the film tend to extend from the visuals on screen as much as they do the script. Many times you're going to notice minute details and aspects which can't help but make you chuckle at their inclusion, especially in scenes like the tavern the pirates find themselves in early on into the film. Moments of exposition and predictability are often alleviated by certain background events such as road signs and advertisements containing dozens of jokes and puns on screen at once. It's these bits which prevent the film from ever dragging and give what would usually be something you'd only watch once or twice a surprising amount of value in re-watching it. A recent comparison would be some of the early scenes of Wreck-It Ralph which featured countless camos, jokes and scenes tributing video game franchises both old and new.

The animation quality itself is... well it's Aardman do you really need me to add more? It runs smoothly from beginning to end, remains extremely lifelike throughout and is so fluidly dynamic in its movements that you could achieve no better by CGI-ing the whole thing.

If there is one thing which could be seen as a weakness it would the the plot. Not the writing itself, the dialogue, jokes and scripted scenes are fine but just each turn is extremely predictable. It feels at times like it's constructed out of various tropes taken from traditional tales rather than dynamically written so while it's hard to call it bad you can't help but feel it's an artificial structure just to get from one joke to the next. Then again perhaps that's all Pirates! needed, and predictability has hardly hurt the Wallace and Gromit films at any point.

Having been out for a few years now, DVD prices are down to a reasonable level and can be found on most sales websites without trouble. While it's hardly the most heavy going film, as a comedic adventure it's definitely one of the best i've seen in recent years and easily competes with what you find Dreamworks making. It also has one of the catchiest trailer songs I think i've ever seen. If you're a fan of animation or Aardman's previous stuff definitely take a look at this one.


The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! and all related characters and media are owned by Aardman Animations, Sony Pictures Animation and Columbia Pictures.

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