Aardman are something of a national treasure to Brits. Their idiosyncratic sense of humour, chock full of sight gags and absurd asides, marks them out as uniquely British, whilst their traditionally made sets and clay models, in spite of it being a universal technique, somehow seem to have grown organically out of Bristol soil. Wallace and Gromit could not take place in the USA, and Chicken Run would be unthinkable in France or Australia. Creature Comforts, the brilliant shorts that brought the voices of the British public to life through clay animals, was a perfect representation of the way our country can think. And so their latest film, featuring the voice of the perpetually bemused Englishman (and hero of Leveson, that most British of enquiries) Hugh Grant, as well as a clutch of homegrown talents such as David Tennant, Imelda Staunton and Martin Freeman, unsurprisingly feels very much a product of the Sceptred Isle.
For those familiar with the studio, all the usual elements of their films are present and correct. Background visual jokes abound (see boxed list for the best, although you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled for some), and the sets are meticulously detailed. There’s also the commitment to the craft that sets them apart from the competition, and it shows in the fantastic animation. Using a blend of good old fashioned stop motion and super modern CG, it has a feel and texture that cannot be achieved with pure CG, but contains shots and sequences that would be impossible to achieve solely with stop motion. As such this may well turn out to be the most visually impressive animated film of the year – even the ship they sail on (a meticulously designed 8ft+ model in real life) is a testament to this.
It’s perhaps not as laugh-out-loud hilarious as it could be, and the plot – involving Queen Victoria and her taste for cooking rare animals – occasionally feels a little forced. In fact, said villain is where the film really enters the doldrums. When all the other characters get witty moments and great lines, nothing about the Queen quite seems to work. She’s not especially funny or scary, and whilst the film is mostly plain sailing, some scenes with her in feel as though everyone has had to go below decks and start rowing.
It’s a minor qualm, however, with a film that is as wonderful, unique and enjoyable as we have come to expect from Aardman. Sadly Pirates! is unlikely to get a sequel due to relatively disappointing box office, which is a tremendous shame as this is a crew that could take us on some even greater adventures.
Extras: A documentary about the process of making a stop motion film gives a good insight into the level of work that goes into a film like this. Their achievement is, to be quite frank, heroic. The dissection of the bath chase scene gives a further fascinating look at the way Pirates! is put together. Slight, but very interesting for any animation fan. There’s also a commentary track and a dingbats like game with Mr Bobo, the monkey butler.