Aardman Animation is one of the most reliable animation houses outside Emeryville (the headquarters of Pixar). From the early days of Morph through the Oscar-winning Wallace & Gromit onto films like Chicken Run and Flushed Away, you can always be fairly sure of fun when the company is involved. Unfortunately that hasn’t always translated into big box office, which resulted in their deal with Dreamworks Animation ending early. Luckily though Sony was looking for ways to expand their animation output and so they stepped up for The Pirates! (and last year’s Arthur Christmas).
Peter Lord co-founded Aardman with David Sproxton back in the 1970s, but this is the first film he’s directed since he co-helmed Chicken Run with Nick Park back in 2000. Thankfully he hasn’t lost his touch, as The Pirates! is great fun, full of Aardman’s trademark attention to detail and visual jokes, along with a playful sense of humour and a plot that never takes itself too seriously, but still manages to create memorable characters.
The film follows the adventures of Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant – who as he himself point out in the special features, actually does some acting in this movie) and his crew of misfits. He dreams of being ‘Pirate Of The Year’, but the problem is, he’s not really all that good at privateering, even though he and his crew love the life. On one attempt to steal treasures from a ship, he comes across a scientist called Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who realises that Pirate Captain’s parrot isn’t a parrot at all, it’s a dodo.
Darwin tells the pirate that if they go back to London and present the ‘parrot’ to the scientific community, untold riches could be his for rediscovering the extinct animal, and so they head off to the UK. However that might not be such a good idea, as Darwin may not be as trustworthy as he first appears and Britain is ruled over by Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), who absolutely hates pirates!
Although it doesn’t hit the heights of Curse Of The Were-rabbit, Pirates! still shows 10 times the imagination of most animated movies. The story moves at a ridiculously fast-pace, and sometimes feels like it’s going a bit too fast, but it certainly ensures it never gets dull as we move from Caribbean islands, onto the high seas, and sail into Victorian London. The pace and ever-changing settings will also help keeps the kids’ attention, as will the action, including a chase scene involving the pirates sliding down stairs in a bath. It’s a sequence that seems intent on outdoing anything Aardman’s done before on the chase front, in terms of both technical expertise and scope.
While largely intricate stop-motion, the film uses a fair amount of CG, which perhaps isn’t surprising considering the number of outdoor settings and oceanic vistas the film necessarily employs. The two are mixed together exceedingly well, to create an immersive world into which the slightly dim Pirate Captain and his crew perfectly fit. The movie is absolutely crammed with wonderful touches, from Aardman’s trademark witty signs and posters to some great jokes. Hugh Grant is surprisingly good in the lead role, and he’s ably supported by a voice cast that includes Russell Tovey, Brendan Gleeson, Ashley Jensen (as a ‘surprisingly curvaceous’ pirate), and in smaller roles Lenny Henry, Brian Blessed, Salma Hayek and Jeremy Piven.
Blu-ray is certainly the best way to watch the movie in the home, with wonderful picture quality that really brings out the animator’s art, as well as the rich lighting and broad colour palette that make the film look great. It’s a bright, vibrant picture, which makes the pirates seem much larger than life than stop-motion maquettes.
There’s not a vast array of special features, but what’s there is definitely worth watching. The commentary from the filmmaker is a lot of fun, while the 20-minute ‘From Stop To Motion’ featurette is a fascinating look at the making of the movie. The documentary reveals just what a jaw-droppingly complex feat making a movie like this is, as well as showing some of the tricks of the trade, along with the dedication and imagination of the Aardman team. There’s a shorter featurette that concentrates on bath chase, as well as a pirate dress-up game for the kids and a couple of Peter Lord’s short films, including the Oscar-nominated ‘Wat’s Pig’.
Overall Verdict: Not quite as classic as some of Aardman’s work, but still an immensely fun, imaginative and very funny stop-motion treat.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac