The Acceptable Face of Movie Piracy
The usual bemusement was writ large on the face of one of the local ticketeers when I went out of my way to enjoy Peter Lord's The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! in 2D. (Best to make the most of this venerable format while you can, guys: plans are apparently afoot to secure the future of 3D by raising 2D ticket prices to subsidise unpopular stereoscopy). I suppose you could argue that this film, with its major studio backing and retro-3D conversion, is in some ways pretty much indistinguishable from the majority of mass-produced focus-grouped happy-meal-selling big studio fodder, but this has enough quirky British stuff going on to redeem it.
Anyway. Based on the books by Gideon Defoe, this is the soaringly improbable story of the Pirate Captain (a bold move into acting for the political activist and media spokesperson Hugh Grant), who is not so much a briny marauder as an affably feckless halfwit. Nevertheless, he and his crew of freaks and weirdoes are determined to (finally) win the much-coveted ‘Pirate of the Year' award. Their initial attempts to get their hands on some booty (steady now) are not very successful, but this changes when they encounter the Beagle and its most celebrated passenger, Charles Darwin (David Tennant). Darwin has had no luck in the booty department either, but he does know where there's a prize for ‘Scientific Discovery of the Year' about to be awarded – and a startling revelation regarding the Pirate Captain's beloved pet Polly gives everybody hope that their luck is about to change...
Well, it's a bit difficult to know what to say about Pirates! The first thing is probably that the fact this film has been made at all is somewhat noteworthy, given that up until less than ten years ago making a big movie about pirates was considered as safe an investment as putting all your money in a box and throwing it off a cliff. Yes, this movie is clearly following in the wake of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, with many of the jokes having exactly the same off-beat flavour – except perhaps even moreso, given the latitude available to the makers of an animation.
As animations go, this is a stunningly beautiful one, with virtually every shot being lovingly composed and photographed, every background packed with tiny details. Aardman have possibly surpassed themselves in their attention to detail with this film, because the look of it is almost literally breathtaking. Everyone is saying the same thing, which is that this is a film you'll have to watch on DVD with a finger on the pause button to fully appreciate, there are so many sight gags and throwaway jokes packed into the backgrounds of shots.
The film is stuffed with good jokes of this kind from the opening seconds until deep into the closing titles and this is possibly just as well as – while often very funny indeed – the main plot and the gags in the dialogue are not as consistently amusing as they could be. The general beats and reversals of said plot are, in fact, almost entirely predictable.
This is a bit of a shame as many of the details of the plot have a pleasingly baroque insanity to them – I might almost suggest that this film sort of resembles Captain Pugwash, but as written by Michael Moorcock. In fact, there are some signs here of a much darker and more grotesque film buried under all the family-friendly plasticine – there was a bit of a fuss earlier this year when some lepers complained that one scene shown in the trailer was in poor taste. This scene has since been rewritten, but there are still flashes of really strange black humour now and then. I have to say that a version of Pirates! which followed this path a bit further and wasn't quite so fixated on hitting familiar character-development beats looks like it would have been considerably more interesting.
Nevertheless, consummate craft and attention to detail have gone into this film, and it has attracted a correspondingly top-notch voice cast – as well as Grant and Tennant, there are appearances by Martin Freeman, Salma Hayek, Russell Tovey, Lassie laureate Brendan Gleeson, and Lenny Henry (to name but a few), and a characteristically ear-splitting turn from Brian Blessed (who also gets name-checked in one of the on-screen gags, pleasingly enough). There is plenty here for all ages to enjoy; I laughed a lot and was captivated by the look of the thing, even if the incidental details sometimes seemed to be slightly more interesting and entertaining than the actual meat of the story. Still, fun.