While Aardman’s latest feature film is a definite hit and a good, solid film, it falls a little short of brilliance by lacking a little vital spark of warmth and heart. Really, though, these are problems not with Aardman but with the source material.
A lively but inept pirate crew love their captain. However, he’s destined for embarrassment when he sets his sights on the Pirate of the Year award, which is based on how much booty each captain brings in. However, a chance encounter with a young Charles Darwin reveals that not is all as it seems with the ship’s parrot, and a harebrained scheme to get rich on a scientific prize is formed. However, lurking in the shadows is the dastardly Queen Victoria – who loathes pirates.
Pirates are of course a firm favourite with kids and show up everywhere in animation, from old adaptations of
Treasure Island to One Piece. Pirates of the Caribbean is one of the biggest movie
successes of our times and there are ever more stories about space pirates,
steampunk pirates and fantasy pirates. The themes are nice and broad, there
will always be motivations for every character and yet the violence is always
on the cartoonish side. You’re on safe ground with pirates.
And Aardman are nothing if not masters of the little touches. This film is a rapidfire succession of brilliant visual gags and jokes – in three successive shots, there’s a joke about the coin slots on pool tables (to get cannonballs out), a joke about bowling alleys (as the cannonballs appear) and a joke about when dogs put their heads out of car windows. There is lots of very British silliness (how many outside these fair lands recognise that Blue Peter badge?) and the dialogue and characterisation has the air of a pantomime. The plot is simple but funny, with Polly just skirting being called a MacGuffin, and the voice acting is superb – Hugh Grant and David Tennant play off one another expertly and without ever drawing attention to themselves as actors, so that it’s easy to forget they are not simply the clay characters on the screen. Cameos from Lenny Henry, Salma Hayek and especially Brian Blessed are a hoot, and the main crew have an excellent dynamic. Imelda Staunton’s voice couples with a simply brilliant model to make a perfect villain who can look both threatening and hilarious depending on the situation.
The main issues I have are very small, but build up to keep the pirates all at arm’s length. One is the book’s notion that the crew should all lack names. So we get The Pirate Captain, the Pirate with Gout, the Albino Pirate and the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (who is of course in the Mary Read vein). It all gets a bit laboured and strained and reminds the audience constantly that these are cardboard figures, and awesome scenes about ham can only go so far to redress that. Then there is the way so much of the humour revolves around hurting random stranger by dropping anchors on them and suchlike. Plus making a plot point of ‘Mallet space’ (here, in a luxuriant beard), again preventing the audience forgetting they are watching animation. Finally, I just don’t think the monkey talking through cards in his hand works. It never raises more than a vague smile and isn’t worth the cost in believability. Obviously, these are all individually minor matters and I don’t think that what Pirates! really needed was to be terribly realistic – but the little niggles as I said prevented me from ever really relating to any of the crew, and thus about really caring about any of them. Even the most emotionally accessible member of the crew was known only as ‘Number 2’ or ‘The Pirate with a Scarf’.
This is not to say this isn’t an excellent animated film. It is. I just know Aardman can do much better, and want to see them make something that will touch people, not just tickle at their funny bones.