Film 2018: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!

As Film 2018 moves into the final quarter of the year, the pile of DVDs gets shorter and the choices narrower. It’s easier now to see where I haven’t been spacing out categories of films as well as I might, and the choice of a concluding film from those that remain becomes correspondingly more difficult to make.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! is one of four animation films remaining, another one of which comes from Aardman’s peculiarly wonderful brand of stop-go animation (can you guess what it is yet?). Watching it again this quiet, bright morning, I was shocked to see that it came out as long ago as 2012, as I have such vivid memories of watching it at Grand Central, and of laughing so hard in so many places that I seriously thought of going to see it a second time, just to catch the jokes I’d laughed through.

The film is an adaptation of the first of Gideon Defoe’s series of five comedy adventures about a band of inept pirates. It’s wonderfully silly, endlessly inventive and, in the true Aardman style, crams in visual background jokes in such profusion that you can’t guarantee to catch them all.

Essentially, the storyline is that The Pirate Captain wants to win the Pirate of the Year award but has no chance because a) he and his crew are rubbish at being pirates and b) they have no luck whatsoever. However, when they bump into a shifty Charles Darwin (who fears he’ll never get a girlfriend), he tells them that ship’s parrot Polly is not a parrot at all but a long-extinct Dodo, and a worthy winner of the Scientist of the Year award.

The Pirate Captain goes for it, even though that means going to London, home of the young Queen Victoria, who loathes pirates. And when the Pirate Captain wins, Vicky wants Polly, ostensibly for her Petting Zoo but in reality for the Rare Diners Club, a group of world leaders who like to banquet off the most endangered species they can find.

Seduced by a massive amount of gold booty, and a pardon (which promptly disqualifies him from winning the Pirate of the Year award, and from being a pirate), the Pirate Captain hands over Polly, which, when he’s forced to admit it, costs him his crew’s loyalty.

So, all on his own – well, with a reluctant but now discredited Darwin and his trained monkey, Mr Bobo – the Pirate Captain goes after Victoria’s heavily armed flagship, the QV1, to rescue Polly, which earns him his crew’s faith again.

It’s a light story but an ideal one upon which to hang the gags, and these come in a mixture of forms. There’s visual, there’s slapstick, there’s verbal and even a plethora of character-based gags, the last of which are put over splendidly by a very strong voice line-up indeed. The leading quartet are Hugh Grant, in splendidly self-satirical mode as the Pirate Captain, David Tennant in manly self-pitying/miserable mode as Charles Darwin, Martin Freeman giving a lovely, solid Dr Watson-esque performance as Number Two (aka The Pirate with a Scarf), and Imelda Staunton exuding surprising menace as Queen Victoria.

With the exception of Freeman, displaying his strengths as the solid anchor that keeps things from flying apart, everyone is encouraged to go OTT in various degrees, but not uncontrollably so. There are smaller vocal roles for people like Russell Tovey, Lenny Henry, Ashley Jensen, Brian Blessed (going seriously OTT but when does he ever do anything else?) and even Selma Hayek as the sultry Cutlass Lil.

The film was the second and final co-production with Sony Animation (in respect of which it was named The Pirates! Band of Misfits in America and elsewhere). This gave Aardman access to CGI for the sea-scenes and elsewhere, and slightly flattens the comedy though to no deleterious effect. The film was obviously set up for a sequel, and even a series, and Aardman did start work on scripting The Pirates! In an Adventure with Cowboys! (not taken from one of Defoe’s books) but Sony weren’t interested. Pity, it would have been fun.

The problem, I imagine, from Sony’s end, as the mucking about with the title evidences, is that ultimately Aardman are too British. It’s gloriously part of their appeal, and they stand foursquare in the great tradition of British absurdity/eccentricity. But it also meant that The Pirates! etc. ultimately brought in modest returns, worldwide, and especially in America, which made it not commercial enough for Sony.

Personally, I don’t care. This film is Aardman lightly watered down, but not to an extent that compromises their spirit or harms the comedy. To extend the series, I would expect Sony would have demanded a more diluted version. So maybe it’s best that The Pirates! In an Adventure with Cowboys! was never more than a giddy, gleeful, imaginary film where everything can be as pure as can be.

Let’s have a Ham Nite!


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