Skip to main content

And that's why, in a straight fight, a shark would probably beat a Dracula.


The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists
(2012)

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.

***1/2

Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.