Chancellor George Osborne pledged this week to “keep Wallace and Gromit exactly where they are”, by extending tax breaks to British animators. If that means we will see more films of the quality of Aardman Animations’ latest being made in this country, that can only be a good thing – providing that after the raid on pensions and fuel duty hike, any of us can still afford to go to the cinema.
Stop-motion animation at this level is an incredibly time-consuming, labour-intensive business, but while I watched The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists!, thoughts of spreadsheets and payrolls didn’t cross my mind once. This was largely because I was too busy gawping in dangly-jawed wonderment at the huge amounts of creativity, artistry and effort that had been invested in it instead.
Aardman’s fifth feature-length project is a richly detailed, mind-bogglingly clever piece of work, but it feels every bit as hand-moulded and tangibly squidgible as their earlier, half-hour Wallace and Gromit shorts. It doesn’t look expensive; nor does it look cheap. It just looks the way Aardman films should, which is glorious. The Pirates! is the studio’s first stop-motion feature since Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2005, and also its most elaborate by a fair stretch. It is based on the first two books in the Pirates! series by Gideon Defoe, and follows a pirate captain called the Pirate Captain who is determined to win a Pirate of the Year Award, in the face of some stiff competition from his swaggering rivals, Peg Leg Hastings, Cutlass Liz and Black Bellamy.
The Captain, voiced with immaculate comic timing by Hugh Grant, plans to do this with the help of his crew, who are known only by their quirks. There’s the Pirate with Gout, the Pirate with a Scarf, the Albino Pirate and the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate, whose beard looks a little loose and whose voice could conceivably be less womanly.
Crucially, there is also Polly, the Captain’s pet parrot, who is, scientifically speaking, actually a dodo. An encounter on the high seas with a ship called the Beagle sees the naturalist Charles Darwin (voiced by David Tennant) correctly identify the bird, and the Captain realises his “discovery” of a species previously thought to be extinct could earn him enough loot to swing the award in his favour.
Meanwhile, Darwin has his own baroquely odd plan for Polly, which I defy any cinemagoer to predict before it is revealed on screen. Suffice to say it involves a trip to London to present Polly to the Royal Society and the dastardly Queen Victoria (voiced by Imelda Staunton), a renowned loather of pirates and no slouch with a blade herself.
Victoria’s prowess in hand-to-hand combat, her cast-iron petticoats, the Captain’s cut-and-shut galleon, Darwin’s chimpanzee butler Mr Bobo and a general preoccupation with roast ham are all typical of the film’s giddily mischievous, utterly English sense of humour, which owes an equal debt to Douglas Adams and that Minnesota-born Brit, Terry Gilliam.
It certainly feels very different from the gentler, more self-deprecating Northern flavour of the Wallace & Gromit films, and very young audience members may wish to hide their eyes during Queen Victoria’s more unhinged moments, but in accordance with the film’s U certificate, the towering daftness of these scenes mitigates any sense of threat.
There’s perhaps nothing to beat the sheer comic efficiency of Gromit, Aardman’s greatest creation (despite being just two eyes, two ears and a nose on a blank Plasticine blob, that dog was more expressive than most Hollywood actors), but efficiency isn’t the aim here. Every scene has been embellished with sight gags, funny signs and dizzying amounts of background detail, all enhanced, not obscured, by judicious use of 3D.
It would take multiple viewings to drink it all in, but The Pirates! more than justifies it. I’d gladly pay to watch it again and again. Filmmaking doesn’t get much more tax-efficient than that.