The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (U, 88 mins)
Director: Peter Lord
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Aardman Animation has been a great British success story for over two decades, hoovering up Oscars left right and centre in the 90s with their brilliant Wallace & Gromit shorts.
Their feature output has been a bit of a mixed bag though, beginning with the successful Chicken Run and peaking with another Oscar win for Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. But they hit something of a bump with their move to computer generated animation with the lacklustre Flushed Away and last year’s decent but unmemorable Arthur Christmas.
The clumsily titled The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists marks a return to the charming plasticine adventures that made Aardman’s reputation, and while it’s not up there with the best of their stuff, it’s still a very pleasant diversion in the run up to the Easter holidays.
Hugh Grant, who rarely appears on screen these days, provides a voice for an animated film for the first time, and does a terrific job, playing a pirate captain who goes by the name of, erm, Pirate Captain. He yearns to be Pirate of the Year, but must always watch in disappointment as other more illustrious pirates walk off with the title.
It could be the scientific discovery of the age, and might net Pirate Captain the gold and booty he needs to win the pirate trophy. But to get the scientific acclaim means a trip to London, where Queen Victoria has a real beef against pirates.
Though there’s plenty scope to make fun of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the urge to go all oo-arr is very much resisted here. Instead it’s all very British, typified by Grant’s unexpected yet ingenious casting, and he delivers his most engaged and committed performance in years.
It’s packed with plenty of throwaway gags and visual jokes, though only once or twice does it manage to replicate the sort of manic action that defined Wallace & Gromit. Anachronisms and modern references abound, and there’s a surprisingly large dash of innuendo, but it provides warm chuckles rather than big laughs, and the whole is just not quite at a level necessary to turn it into something of lasting value.
It’s lifted a notch by a tremendous voice cast which, as well as Grant, also include nice turns from Martin Freeman, David Tennant as Darwin and Imelda Staunton as a very un-Queen like Queen Victoria. Ashley Jensen stole the show as an elf in Arthur Christmas, and she gets a number of good moments here as the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate.
The result is hardly vintage Aardman then but, much like Arthur Christmas, this is endearing and amusing enough to get the job done.