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Non-Review Review: The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists (Band of Misfits)

This review was embargoed until 14th March.

There’s a lot of charm to The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (or Band of Misfits, if you’re so inclined). Aardman Animation might be best known for their distinctive (and beautiful) claymation style, but the studio also has some very sharp writers providing great concepts, ideas and scripts for their madcap films. Pirates! is no different, taking a fairly conventional setting with a fairly conventional central moral, and just throwing absolutely everything against the wall. The result is a genuinely endearing and more-than-a-little madcap family adventure.

A cut above the rest?

The premise is fairly simple, as the title of the film implies. It’s about a bunch of pirates, led by The Pirate Captain. Now, The Pirate Captain has been plundering quite a while, but seems deeply unsatisfied. Failing to earn any measure of respect among the pirating community, he has failed to with the coveted “Pirate of the Year” award, given out annually at Blood Island (“so called because it’s shaped exactly like some blood”) by the Pirate King.

Setting out to bring home enough booty to earn the top prize and the admiration of his peers, The Pirate Captain stumbles across an equally pathetic Charles Darwin, who reaches a rather obvious conclusion about the crew rather… “big-bone” parrot, Polly. It turns out that Polly is the last existing Dodo, and could win the coveted “Scientist of the Year.” With accolades in his eyes, The Pirate Captain and his crew set sale to London on a rather unconventional adventure.

Swinging into action...

From the outset, it’s clear where the story’s going. We know that The Pirate Captain must eventually realise the folly of his pursuit of such validation, and learn that his own band of long-term friends are all he really needs. However, what makes the film so much fun, apart from its wonderful “throw everything at the wall” approach, is the fact that The Pirate Captain is such a ridiculously blind protagonist, and that he seems to be completely and stubbornly incapable of fathoming the lesson that the movie is trying to teach him. There’s something quite charming about a lead character who is so thoroughly unreceptive to the obvious epiphany at the heart of the film.

A large part of the success of the movie rests with Hugh Grant in the lead role. Grant seems to relish the opportunity to play a role unburdened by any of the archetypes he has been associated. The Pirate Captain isn’t an insecure individual lacking in self-confidence like those roles Grant played early in his career, nor is he a nasty and cynical “bad boy” like the public image Grant has courted in the past decade or so. Instead, the script invites Grant to play against type, and he is positively gleeful in his portrayal of the lead character. It’s great performance, because it seems to have been so much fun.

A whale of a time...

Indeed, it seems like all of the cast had a great deal of fun, and the ensemble is rather beautifully brought together. In particular, David Tennant’s deliciously sleazy Charles Darwin, a sexually-frustrated weak-willed coward, is delightful. Between this and Fright Night, Tennant is fast establishing himself as a quirky supporting actor, and I’m glad to see that there is life for the actor after Doctor Who.

Brian Blessed, Salma Hayek, Lenny Henry and Jeremy Piven make the most of small roles in the larger pirate community. It’s great to hear Blessed again, because he really is an actor defined by his big booming voice. Imelda Staunton has a great deal of fun as Queen Victoria, with a strange pathological dislike of pirates. Among the cast of the pirate ship, Brendan Gleeson, Ashley Jensen, Martin Freeman and Russell Tovey provide solid support, with Gleeson even putting on a rather hilarious sea-faring accent.

Getting a steer on things...

However, it’s the script that really makes the movie work. I think part of the appeal of Pirates! is the clever attitude it adopts towards jokes. It honestly seems like the script was written with the intent of keeping every single good joke intact, and the movie has a deliciously rapid-fire wit which isn’t necessarily confined to one type of joke. There’s slapstick humour, there’s character-based comedy, there are puns, there are ridiculous situations, there are monkeys in sharp suits, there are background jokes and signage, there are gags that will go completely over the heads of all the kids in the audience and make parents chuckle to themselves. Not all the gags hit, but they are delivered in such intensity that you’ll be sure to smile at least once every two or three minutes.

The movie looks fantastic as well, although I am a big fan of this sort of production design. I love stop-motion work, and I grew up with Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit, so it’s great to see something like this again. In fact, I’m delighted that the year so far has offered The Muppets and this claymation animation as well (with Frankenweenie around the corner), demonstrating that old approaches to animation have not been completely abandoned because of the success of CGI. I firmly believe that there’s room for all sorts of styles and approaches, and I think that Pirates! offers a beautiful example of stop-motion cinema in action.

A piercing interrogation...

Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists is great fun, and I think it can be measured among Aardman’s stronger efforts. It’s touching, without being cloying. It’s sharp, without being cold. It’s funny, without losing itself. You could do a lot worse when looking for a family film.

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