The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), the head of a terribly unsuccessful band of buccaneers, plans to win the award for Pirate Of The Year, despite being vastly under-qualified. A quest to plunder enormous amounts of treasure with the help of his most unassuming crewmate leads to a run-in with English royalty and the entire scientific community.
The actual method of animation is just about the least important part of any animated movie - what’s funny in CGI will be equally funny in traditional ink and paint, bits of crudely cut paper or probably even on a deftly controlled Etch A Sketch - but there is definitely something about stop-motion that brings out the best in Aardman. More so than computer animation, it just so beautifully fits their completely unmodern sense of humour. This is not a criticism. Aardman films don’t generally exist in any particular decade and if they do, then it’s one in the indefinite past. Most jokes in an Aardman film would no doubt have worked equally well 30 years ago, and will probably work equally well in 30 years to come.
Aardman’s first stop-motion project in seven years, following the superlative Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, is a very smart/silly adaptation of a very smart/silly book by Gideon Defoe (he has already written several sequels featuring whales, communists, Napoleon and ham). Defoe also scripts this yarn about a useless pirate captain (voiced with doltish appeal by Hugh Grant) who wants to win the coveted Pirate Of The Year trophy, a feat made unlikely by the fact he is not even the most cunning pirate on his boat, a cut ’n’ shut craft crewed by, among others, a drunk, a transvestite, an albino and the wry Martin Freeman in the patented Martin Freeman role of long-suffering right-hand man. A chance meeting with Charles Darwin (David Tennant) puts him on an altogether different quest involving a very angry Queen Victoria, a monkey who provides his own subtitles and not-a-parrot. If that doesn’t make a lot of sense, it’s because that’s the kind of milieu this is. Everything fits together with a peculiar sort of logic in its own curious world, it just doesn’t make much sense in the traditional use of the word. It’s like Monty Python making a film for children. While a bit drunk. And over-tired.
It’s so, so very daft in such a clever way. Defoe’s way with words is equally elegant and random, the perfect match for Peter Lord’s skill with a visual gag. The screen is consistently filled with jokes to pick up on later. It’s got the humour of a sozzled, posh, elderly relative saying something enormously erudite and witty one second and then blathering bizarrely on about pigs being a type of fruit the next. It’s all so delightfully loose for something that requires such regimented precision to produce. One of the greatest pleasures is watching with the knowledge that the ridiculous aside, which had nothing to do with the story but will make you chuckle for weeks, took somebody many days of moving little models in tiny increments. It’s almost impossible not to adore that.
If there is a criticism to be made, it’s that the story moves a touch too briskly — the most meagre of complaints, we know. It sails so swiftly through the plot that there are times you’d like it to linger a bit more on some useless pirating or the excellent monkey with the flashcards. The crew are lovable, but aside from the captain, The One Who’s Martin Freeman and the world’s most Pollyanna-ish albino, you don’t get much time with them. It’s the downside of creating so many appealing characters that you feel a bit short-changed on the ones who mainly fill out the background. But then your thoughts turn to those poor animators who’d probably get incurable arthritis if pushed to twiddle their way through another 20 minutes of footage. That said, they should now get cracking on the book with the whales quite sharpish, please. And then all the others.
Another Aardman triumph. The animation houses most technically ambitious project so far and, if not quite at the genius level of Wallace & Gromit, still a comedy treasure and far too good just for kids.