(2012) Animated Feature (Columbia) Starring the voices of Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant, Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, Lenny Henry, Brian Blessed, Anton Yelchin, Al Roker, Brendan Gleeson, Ashley Jensen. Directed by Peter Lord
Pirates tend to be a churlish, loutish lot with bad tempers and bad teeth. Hey, you would be too if you spent most of your time on disease-ridden ships the size of a city bus or smaller with a bunch of evil-smelling, wretched men who are as like to cut your throat as they are to have your back – that is if they aren’t stabbing you in it. Pirates are notoriously unreliable (just ask Cap’n Jack Sparrow).
The Pirate Captain (Grant) is not quite such a bad guy but he’s all pirate. How do you know? He’s got the fattest parrot (okay, just big boned) on the high seas, a shiny cutlass and a luxuriant beard. He’s also got gleaming white teeth, a British accent, a love for shiny booty (no wisecracks) and an even greater love for ham.
What he really longs for is the recognition that comes from the Pirate of the Year award. He has thrown his bullet-holed hat in the ring for it year after year and come up short, usually losing to Black Bellamy (Piven), who knows how to make an entrance. He also has to compete with such fine black-hearted seadogs as Cutlass Liz (Hayek) and Peg Leg Hastings (Henry). Still, with the encouragement of his right arm, the Pirate with a Scarf (Freeman) – note that the pirates on the Pirate Captain’s ship don’t get names – he thinks he has more than a fighting chance until he compares his measly pile of booty next to the mountains of shiny trinkets the others bring in.
Determined to win the prize at last, the Captain takes his crew back out for some intense pirating but with a spectacular lack of success the Pirate Captain begins to lose hope. Urged on by his number two, the Captain makes one final attempt at piracy – on what turns out to be the HMS Beagle, returning from the Galapagos with its passenger Charles Darwin (Tennant) who immediately recognizes the Captain’s parrot Polly for what she really is.
Faced with a new way to acquire the booty he needs the Pirate Captain must sail into the most dangerous waters of all – London, where Queen Victoria (Staunton) with her blind, unreasoning hatred of all things pirate, awaits. It will take all of the Captain’s skill to navigate these perilous seas and come back with the award that he so desperately wants.
Aardman studios, the madmen behind the Wallace and Gromit shorts (some of the funniest animated shorts of the past twenty years) and such features as Chicken Run and Arthur Christmas have returned to the stop motion Claymation animation style they’ve championed for years. There is a certain charm to that particular style, with the jerky movements and Aardman’s trademark toothy smiles that are more square than anything else.
Aardman movies have a distinctly British sense of humor that shares the same roots as Monty Python and the Goons, not to mention more recent varieties such as Ricky Gervais and Russell Brand. There is a quirkiness that is utterly endearing and if there are any references that only Brits would get, they’ve been excised from the American version (oddly, a couple of voice actors were replaced with Americans but the vast majority are the same).
If you didn’t know that was Hugh Grant’s voice you probably wouldn’t believe it. Gone are the trademark stammer (except in one instance) and for the most part Grant affects a deeper, more resonant voice for the Pirate Captain. Staunton does her best to make Queen Victoria sound like an annoyed man but wounds up sounding a bit like Helena Bonham Carter as Belliatrix from the Harry Potter movies. Perhaps that’s intentional.
There are some transitional animations that show the pirate ship on an animated map where they are batted around by a codgerish Neptune and blown off-course by playful cherubs. They also release red discs in the water which show up on the map, in an amusing turn (it looks funnier than it sounds). It’s little details like this that make the film stand out.
And while the silent monkey butler (with flash cards for dialogue) might come off as a bit like pandering to the younger set, the monkey – better known as Mr. Bobo, he’s still no more objectionable than the slugs in Flushed Away who were to my mind some of the best parts of that film. I would have, in fact, liked to have seen more of him.
Gideon Defoe wrote the script based on his own books The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists and The Pirates! In an Adventure with Whaling. The upside of this is that he knows his characters best and adapts them to the screen nicely. If there’s a downside it’s that he must have found it hard to edit himself – the movie is a little bit scattershot and seems to be going in several different directions at once. As a result, the story feels a bit rushed and non-organic at times as it gets pinballed much like the ship does on the map.
However the movie is going to appeal to adults very nicely; surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to have captured the imagination of kids at least here in the States which is kind of odd – pirates usually are a big draw for them. I don’t know if it’s just that Claymation is an acquired taste in this age of CGI, but it’s kind of sad that this isn’t pulling numbers that are consistent with CGI features. Hopefully it will nab itself an Oscar nomination come next year; it’ll have some competition with Brave but quite frankly it compares favorably with the rest of the animated films out there.
REASONS TO GO: Quirky humor we’ve come to expect from Aardman. Plenty of clever recurring jokes (the monkey butler, the animated map).
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit all over the map.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence here (they’re pirates after all), a couple of naughty words and a bit of rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the film is animated with stop motion, but computers were used for some of the backgrounds, particularly sea and sky.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100. The reviews are strongly positive.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Yellowbeard
CHARLES DARWIN LOVERS: Although the character is pictured as a young man, thanks to some convenient foam there is a shot of him resembling his more iconic old man visage.
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Where Do We Go Now?