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
The Review: There used to be a few well held and rarely disputed rules about certain genres, including that there’s never really been any good pirate movies (as in movies with pirates, not dodgy market copies of Jurassic Park III filmed on a shakycam and transferred to VHS), and that to make a film based on a theme park attraction was tantamount to insanity. Then in 2003 Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl arrived, got Johnny Depp an Oscar nomination and scared up a huge amount of money. Unsurprisingly, two sequels followed, which raked in even more pirate booty, but there was an inescapable feeling of quality, well, escaping. The third film especially, which starts with child hangings and then proceeds to kill of most of its peripheral characters as an afterthought, really should have killed the franchise stone dead, but it seems that people can’t get enough of Captain Jack Sparrow, so other characters have been cast aside and Captain Jack gets to take centre stage.
He’s not quite on his own; returning alongside Cap’n Jack are Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now a little legless and in the Royal Navy; Kevin McNally as loyal sidekick Gibbs, chugging along in much the same manner as the first three films; and Captain Teague (Keith Richards), repeating his cameo as Sparrow Sr. from the last, ill-advised entry. But never fear, there’s a whole host of new characters to make up for the loss of Orlando, Keira et al, including Penélope Cruz as blast from Jack’s past Angelica and Ian McShane as pirate legend Blackbeard. Those paying attention at the end of the last movie will remember some nonsense being spouted about the Fountain of Youth, and that’s where we’re setting sail for this time, picking up more waifs and strays along the way, including a young priest and a feisty mermaid that will make you wonder quite why, salary considerations aside, they got rid of Orlando and Keira in the first place.
Director Rob Marshall replaces Gore Verbinski this time out, and it’s another change that leaves you pining for the original. While the third Pirates might have been offensively bad in places, it was at least never offensively dull, which is more than can be said for this entry. Sparrow, Barbossa, Blackbeard and even some random Spaniards all trek around the high seas looking for a couple of MacGuffins in addition to finding the Fountain of Youth, but since Jack’s been there before there never feels like a significant obstacle to overcome. On top of that, everyone else’s motivations are murky and no one really seems that interested in finding what they’re supposed to be looking for anyway; if the characters can’t invest in the quest at hand, it doesn’t leave much hope for the audience. If this film has achieved anything, it’s that despite lopping over half an hour off the bloated length of At World’s End, this still feels about forty minutes too long.
There’s also a problem with Captain Jack himself. Being odd on the periphery while others drove the plot worked well, but now Jack’s the driving force somehow everything else feels just a little off kilter. It’s not helped by the writers forgetting what made Jack so appealing in the first place, but the joy of lines from the first film such as “I think we’ve all arrived at a very special place. Spiritually, ecumenically, gramatically…” have been replaced by general oddness which might raise the odd chuckle at the time but fails to linger any longer than a few seconds. Suggestions of romantic tension with Cruz fall flat through a lack of both romance and tension and very few others seem to have their heart in it, certainly not McShane or Rush on this occasion. There’s some interest early on before the plot wheels start to grind to a halt, and a couple of the set pieces entertain briefly, but On Stranger Tides is just a little too strange to have lasting appeal. Remember that rule that there’s no good pirate movies? It seems that Curse Of The Black Pearl was just the exception to that rule.
Why see it at the cinema: The mermaid sequence is pretty reasonable and there’s as much impressive scenery as ever, but this feels oddly small in scale compared to previous entries.
Why see it in 3D: My wife watched large parts of the film without the 3D glasses, and other than appearing brighter it made very little difference. Apart from the occasional thrust of a cutlass there’s very little here to justify the higher ticket price.
The Score: 4/10