The Review: Pirates must have the best PR people in the world, based on their current profile and perception. Never mind general thievery and seafaring atrocities on a scale that’s probably only outdone by the Vikings, from International Talk Like A Pirate Day to the adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow these days it’s cool to roam the high seas with a parrot and a heavy West Country accent. The Pirates! and their obligatory exclamation mark are only likely to make that worse, given that the Captain is the world’s most famous stuttering Englishman, his first mate is Tim off The Office and they’ve been brought to us by the same firm that brought us Wallace, Gromit and Arthur Christmas.
Yes, The Pirates! is the latest from the wizards of Plasticine from Bristol, and like their most famous man and dog creations both the Pirates! and Scientists! of the title are carved from the same clay and they share the same very British sensibility that has characterised every big screen adventure that Aardman has embarked on to date. (Sorry, I’ll stop with the exclamation marks now.) While their philosophy has always been that it’s better to see the thumbprints, the better to appreciate the quality of the craft, it’s never stifled their ambition and Pirates is rich in quality from the tiny background details to the beautifully realised characters. Aardman have also managed to apply their distinctive style to the story while allowing the material to retain a feeling of freshness.
There’s also wall to wall quality in the voice department, with the biggest surprise being Hugh Grant. Casting aside his trademark foppishness and instead channeling a gruff yet playful tone, almost like a younger, more coherent Brian Blessed (who also pops up as the Pirate King), Grant is a thoroughly cheerful presence who keeps the story rolling on his bountiful charisma, and he’s ably supported by his pirate crew, including standout Russell Tovey. The other star of the extensive cast, which ranges from Jeremy Piven to Lenny Henry, is David Tennant as the fraught and slightly scheming Charles Darwin. As with Darwin, the real world characters (such as Imelda Staunton’s Queen Victoria) are not particularly faithful but are all the more fun for it.
However, fun is actually where The Pirates! is sadly a little lacking. While it’s all entertaining enough and will happily while away an hour and a half with the rest of the family, the humour and the peril are both just a shade underdone and there won’t be the repeat value of the likes of Wallace and Gromit or even Chicken Run. There’s a couple of decent set pieces and some moderate chuckles, but the only thing that truly soars is a whale which crashes a pirate get-together early on. It’s so frustrating when we’ve seen what Aardman can do when on top of it’s game, and like Pixar the disappointment is even more acute when the treats on offer aren’t as fulfilling, knowing how high their bar is normally set. Since writer of the original stories Gideon Defoe provides the screenplay and Aardman stalwart Peter Lord direct proceedings, it’s maybe a surprise that it’s all a bit flat in places, but despite the consistently gorgeous animation the occasional pacing issues and the lack of a steady supply of truly great gags mean that you’ll probably enjoy plundering Pirates once, but the treasures here are in somewhat limited supply.
Why see it at the cinema: It’s amazing how much the lumps of clay can be moulded into epic vistas, albeit with a little CG augmentation, but as well as the fantastic visuals, allowing you to see every fingerprint, there’s just enough laughs to make it worth seeing with a big audience.
Why see it in 3D: While animation still seems to hold an advantage over live action in terms of clarity of image in 3D, there’s nothing here that stands out (if you’ll pardon the pun) in terms of a compelling reason to see this in 3D. 2D absolutely fine this time.
The Score: 7/10