Although it's been out a few weeks now over here in the UK (but it's not released stateside until the 27th of this month), I only got the chance to see Aardman's latest feature film: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists on Wednesday, and it was well worth the wait.
The Pirates! is Aardman's first stop-motion animated film since 2005's Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and is directed by Chicken Run helmer, Peter Lord. And whilst The Pirates! retains the trademark British wit and endearing characters that made their previous films such hits with audiences and critics, it also - following in the footsteps of 2007's Flushed Away and last year's Arthur Christmas - broadens its style somewhat, boasting a lot more action and spectacle than the more simplistic Wallace and Gromit or Chicken Run.
The Pirates! follows the adventures of a haplessly mediocre pirate captain, (Hugh Grant) who is creatively named The Pirate Captain, who dreams the improbable dream of being named Pirate of the Year, a feat that means he has to try and overcome the devilishly talented and suave pirating trio of Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), Black Bellamy (Jermey Piven) and Peg-Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry). It seems all hope of redemption and recognition for the Pirate Captain is lost, until he inadvertently swings aboard the boat of one Charles Darwin (gloriously voiced by David Tennant), who tells our clueless captain that his plump little parrot, Polly, is actually the last of the Dodos, and that this discovery could bring untold riches. This is more than sufficient for The Pirate Captain to set sail for London, braving the terrifying, pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) to try and garner enough booty to take the crown of Pirate of the Year, thus launching the - wait for it - adventure with scientists.
The script, written by Gideon Defoe - whose book the film is based on -, is smart, warm-hearted and entertaining for all; with a great mix of gags and action to keep you thrilled and amused in equal measure. It's nothing new for an Aardman film to be funny and to have great characters, but The Pirates! does it with a gusto and renewed energy. The story is a touching one too - not to say ever tear-jerking-ly devastating on a Toy Story 3 level - particularly in the film's second act; due in no small part to the fantastic cast of likeable characters, solidly and enthusiastically voiced by a strong voice cast. The Pirate Captain's loyal crew will be sure to ingratiate themselves to the audience, with their endearing stupidity and earnest ineptness. They're also a testament to creative naming: The Pirate Captain's second in command, Number 2/The Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman), The Pirate With Gout (Brendan Gleeson), The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen) and The Albino Pirate (Russell Tovey). Although the Pirates' individual character models are original and rich in detail, a large portion of their character comes from their strong, mainly British, voice cast topped by stellar performances by Hugh Grant, David Tennant and Martin Freeman. A lot of the same voice cast from Aardman's last feature film, Arthur Christmas, also pop up, including Imelda Staunton and Ashley Jensen. While silent ape companion, Bobo the monkey, is sure to be a huge hit with children.
Another fairly key point in an animated film is the animation, and the animation in The Pirates! is both impressive in its grand scale and its minute details. When you're sitting in the cinema, watching The Pirates! and witness a whale crash through the air into a bar, or a blimp flying out of control above a giant, smoke billowing warship, just think that, save a few CGI additions, this has all been painstakingly crafted by hand out of plasticine by a team of ridiculously talented artists and animators - then you'll get a grasp of the scale and how awe-struck I was by the animation on display here. The Pirates! also cements beyond a shadow of a doubt that stop-motion really is Aardman's forte. Sure, Flushed Away was fun enough, and Arthur Christmas was good, and the animation grand and visceral, but stop-motion is where Aardman excels, it has more of a real, quirky feel to it, and brings life, a real, tangible, life to the characters they make us care about so bloody much. Now, saying that, I had a great affinity for the traditionally animated map segments, and the semi-Fourth-Wall-breaking 'trail leaving' bits that preceded and intertwined them - it was just a nice, quirky addition.
I also feel that honourable mention should go the ending. The Pirates! ended on a very strong note, in a very good place, without falling into the now all too common pothole of tacking 5 minutes onto the end of the film to resolve every single strand of plot. It instead had several cut away sections throughout the credits to tie up some of the lose ends, in the manner of Toy Story 3, yet left enough aporia for the probable and eventual sequel.
To summarise, here we have another winner from Aardman! After the merely good Arthur Christmas, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists is a return to form and supreme excellence from the Wallace and Gromit studio. And whilst it never quite reaches the pinnacle of timelessness of Wallace and Gromit, it does provide Aardman's best and most enjoyable films since the duo's 2005 outing in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. All in all: a winner - a wholly enjoyable and entertaining romp across the seven seas that's fun for all, young and old!
Want to find out for yourself? You can order The Pirates! on Blu Ray by clicking above. Or check out the book that the film's based on, also above (UK links).