The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists
Or, if you’re American, The Pirates! Band of Misfits. I was hitherto unfamiliar with Gideon Defoe’s The Pirates! Series of novels (the fifth of which was published last year) but on this evidence (he also wrote the screenplay) he’s a witty and inventive children’s author, one astutely able to bridge the gap between material appealing to children and to adults.
Defoe’s main character draws on a number of British comedy traditions, chief of which is the pompous career man who is actually inept at his job. There’s more than a dash of Blackadder in the mix with the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) too, although in this case the position of the right-hand man (Martin Freeman) who knows better (as opposed to Baldrick, who certainly doesn’t) is a mainstay.
Defoe embraces anarchic and surreal humour throughout, attaching it to the through-line of the Captain’s wish to win the Pirate of the Year competition (replete with Britain’s Got Talent-esque references; the panel of judges is highly amusing). Roundly ridiculed by his piratical peers, the Captain sees a means of attaining glory when Charles Darwin (David Tennant, whose vocals I didn’t recognise) identifies his pet “parrot” Polly as an extinct dodo. Feting for this discovery awaits in London, but the reveal of nefarious plans for the bird by the thoroughly unscrupulous Queen Victoria creates a dilemma for the Captain.
There’s much that makes Pirates! instantly appealing, not least Hugh Grant’s enthusiastic rendition of the Captain. Polly is an adorable character, and hinging the plot around her is a masterstroke. Most of all, the decision to make the Queen an evil schemer is welcome and unusual, particular for a kids’ movie that might be expected to reserve some respect for royalty. The status quo is cheerfully mocked throughout, be it the sovereign rule or scientific rigour. Charles Darwin is identified as a self-interested nerd who just wants to impress girls, which half works but his characterisation is one of the few areas that the screenplay feels a little over-familiar.
This is Peter Lord’s first full-length feature since he co-directed Chicken Run with Nick Park in 2000. Mostly, he has restricted himself to executive producing Aardman releases. If Lord doesn’t quite have the visual flair of Park, his sense of humour is just as full-bodied. Pirates! is as enjoyable, if not more so, for its incidental sight gags as it is for the main story. These are abundant, but a few choice ones include the pictures on the Captain’s wall of previous adventures, Brian Blessed as the best choice for roaring on the Pirate of the Year awards form, the hot water bottle/sock parrot-substitute and Bobo the monkey’s entire character arc.
The script isn’t afraid to dive into potentially bad taste gags; the Elephant Man appears in a pub, a leper ship (referred to as plague ship) is replete with limbs dropping off and the Captain refers to using babies “as squid bait”. There are also numerous jokes concerning scantily clad ladies (one of the “male” crew is “surprisingly curvaceous”). If the results are hit and miss, it’s nevertheless refreshing that the parameters of taste and decency are considered broader than your average Hollywood ‘toon, while never becoming more than slightly risqué (and thus something parents should worry about). The all-embracing attitude (“This makes electricity look like a pile of crap!”) works more often than it doesn’t because you’re kept unsure of what level the next joke will be aimed at. But the best moments come from the careful laying of foundations for a joke earlier within the script (“girl guides disguised as scientists”, the sea monster “just” being a decoration on all ocean charts).
Aardman’s brand of stop motion (or, in some cases, CGI that resembles stop motion) animation has tended to prove a more difficult sell in the US. Their films, Chicken Run aside, have tended to underperform there. Pirates! was no exception, making three-quarters of its gross in the rest of the world. It may be incidental, but one of the positives of Pirates! is the sense that this isn’t a product of focus-group testing. Any moral message is breezily underplayed, rather than pronounced (I say this with Madagascar 3 fresh in my memory), and as a result what sticks in the mind is the free rein given to the fun and adventurousness of the tale.