Having cleaned up over the festive season with their seasonal CGI family adventure Arthur Christmas, Aardman Animations set their sights on Easter with a return to the stop motion plasticine models with which they first found fame through Creature Comforts and Wallace & Gromit.
Five years in the making, Jack Sparrow’s set sail twice while Aardman having been splicing the animation mainbrace, but audiences appetites for high seas comedy and thrills can still be counted on to turn a healthy doubloon at the box office for Gideon Defoe’s adaptation of the first of his best-selling novels.
Making his animation debut, Hugh Grant is a delight at Pirate Captain, a chap who scores high on the luxuriant beard department but comes up woefully short in the buccaneer tables. His ship’s seen better days and his crew, (variously voiced by Brendan Gleeson, Martin Freeman, Russell Tovey, and, ahem, Ashley Jensen) though loyal are no more competent at the job than he is.
However, after 20 years of failure when the only trophy he’s managed to win was runner up in the Best Anecdote About A Squid competition, he’s set his sights on finally being named Pirate of the Year. After all, if he’s lost so many times already, then the odds must be in his favour!
The award is presented to the pirate who has the biggest booty (that’s as in treasure not behind!) and Pirate Captain has some serious rivals in Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry), Cutlass Liz (Selma Hayek) and current reigning champion Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), all of whom have loot coming out of their ears. Unfortunately, all Pirate Captain has in his coffers is an apple core.
However, during a series of disastrous attempts to plunder gold, they find themselves aboard The Beagle, a ship bound on a journey of scientific discovery carrying the nerdy, girl shy Charles Darwin (David Tennant) who, on seeing the ship’s parrot, Polly, reveals it’s actually a Dodo, a bird long thought extinct. And worth a priceless fortune.
Seeing the Pirate of the Year trophy in his reach, Pirate Captain and his crew set sail with Darwin to London where, in disguise, he intends to present Polly at the Scientist of the Year awards and claim the big prize. There’s just a couple of problems. There’s not actually any prize money and pirates-hating martial arts expert Queen Victoria (a fiery Imelda Staunton) wants the Dodo for her own reasons – and is determined to do anything she can to get her. But will Pirate Captain be prepared to sell the crew’s beloved mascot just so he can beat Black Bellamy to the title?
Set in 1837, the film’s as peppered with invention as it is amusing anachronisms (that’ll be Rubik looking to impress the Royal Society with his cube) and, as always with Aardman, the attention to background detail (look out for the Blue Peter badge) is pure genius. Likewise, a chase involving a runaway bath tub and the climactic fight aboard a flying ship are visually inspired.
Unfortunately, it’s never quite as funny as it should be, the very British wit and antics producing smiles and giggles rather than raucous laughter. Nor, other than the sight of snobby Jane Austen throwing beer of the Elephant Man, is there much for the grown ups who might also be slightly concerned about the frequent uncharacteristically smutty references to scantily clad ladies and peering down the top’s of women’s blouses and having to explain exactly what ‘reaching second base with a lady’ means.
The other problem is that, in addition to sagging in the middle, it becomes increasingly repetitive as it struggles to make up a feature length running time. Youngsters will love the slapstick and Darwin’s manpanzee butler who communicates with title cards, but, while always fun, I’d be prepared for kids over 10 wanting to weigh anchor before the credits roll.
The film’s released in both 2D and 3D, but the latter adds almost nothing to the experience, other than the cost of the ticket means you get to experience high seas robbery first hand.
BBFC Guidance: Contains mild language
LGWTC Guidance: Warm, moving, sentimental, and funny with a cute kid, a big heart and colourful wildlife, this is a zoo visit well worth a family ticket