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The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists Review * 08 April 2012

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Aardman Animation's latest stop motion film is a new property for them. Directed by studio head Peter Lord, 'The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists' is a madcap, slightly screwball comedy mish-mash of mild historical fact with a modern sensibility, coupled to some genuinely inspired set pieces on a scale not seen from the company. 

Cleverly sending up all other Pirate films, and the fact that the iconography of them has become so commonplace it has become archetypal, all the major pirate characters in the film lack proper names. Instead, we have The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), his second in command The Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman), The Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jenson), and Albino Pirate (Russell Tovey). The crew find themselves facing off against a naïve yet good hearted Charles Darwin (David Tennant) and the ferocious, pirate hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) over the fate of The Pirate Captain's parrot, Polly. Who is actually a Dodo. And thus the greatest scientific discovery in history.

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The crew, from left to right: The Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), Albino Pirate (Russell Tovey), The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), Polly, The Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman), and Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jenson)

As the summary sounds, the plotline is suitably bonkers but also very funny. The result is a furious, Pythonesque deployment of visual and verbal gags throughout the film that never leaves the audience bored. Visual highlights include the cue-card using Mr Bobo - a 'helper' Monkey that Darwin has trained to the level of a Butler (and actually beyond), the sly use of markers on the maps depicting the crew's journeys, and the numerous signs and furniture that lampoon pirate culture and terminology that appear throughout. The script is slightly less successful, though the quick fire randomness often deploys a gem that can be overlooked - for example, offhand asides from The Pirate Captain to Charles Darwin about slugs and shared parentage with Mr Bobo seemingly plant the seed of 'The Origin of Species' in a single cunning few seconds, and then we are off again.    

The vocal cast is uniformly excellent. At first glance, the cultured Englishness of Hugh Grant is perhaps an odd choice for The Pirate Captain, but again the aim is to subvert the usual tropes we would associate with the subject matter. Grant instead brings a level of moronic heroism and dash to the role, playing an idiotic buffoon who is still capable of feats of daring do when called on. As his first officer, Martin Freeman is once again the straight man to a leading character of odd quirks, but since he is capable of doing that so well it's churlish to make it a complaint. Freeman is arguably the heart of the film, lending a moral strength to the proceedings and instilling a degree of loyalty that is tangible, as well as fulfilling the Aardman trope of the sidekick who is smarter than his master, ala Gromit. Other leading crew members aren't really given much to do beyond sight gags - both Brendan Gleeson's Pirate with Gout and Ashley Jenson's Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirates suffer from underwriting but benefit from the one joke nature of their names. Russell Tovey makes a mark though as Albino Pirate, fulfilling the most standard form of typical Britishness in the kind hearted yet slightly dense manner that you expect from a side character from Aardman Animation. 

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David Tennant is a complex Charles Darwin, depicted before his greatest work and as a geek in love, desperate to impress a very particular woman and thus swinging from conniving villainy to sympathetic hero. Imelda Staunton is good value as the true villain of the piece. Her Queen Victoria is simplistically drawn and diverts quite dramatically from historical fact by the end, but she still carries off the part well. And in inspired casting, the other side characters are filled out by larger names, including Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, Lenny Henry and the unmistakable booming of Brian Blessed.      

Visually the film is a treat, technically ambitious beyond any previous effort from Aardman. Blending traditional stop motion with computer augmentation, the scale of the film is impressive, particularly during a chase to prevent the kidnap of Polly through Charles Darwin's home, and the stunning final sequence at sea. The film is also the first stop motion from Aardman to be produced in 3D, and the result is one of the better films in the format, the effect never intrusive. Like Avatar, in the end the 3D is so subtle and enveloping you allow it to swallow you up, like one of those sea monsters you see on old sea charts - though they were only ever drawn on as decoration of course.

While not a classic animation, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists is brilliantly and randomly funny, a suitable diversion from the standard Pirate film. The whole voice cast works with aplomb, and it's worth seeing just for the odd teaming of Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman and David Tennant. We heartily recommend it.

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The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists is now on general release in the UK. It is released on April 27th in the USA. The film is showing in both 3D and 2D.