Directors: Peter Lord, Jeff Newitt
Pirate comedies are quite a niche subgenre (the Pirates of the Caribbean movies don’t count; any comedy is due to Mr. Depp). It’s also a rather poor subgenre, the last notable entry being Roman Polanski’s horrid Pirates. So, Aardman’s The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists (or Bunch Of Misfits if you’re a rabid right-wing Kentuckian) won’t have to put in too much effort to become top of the heap. Unfortunately, it tries too hard; myriad gags come and go in unmemorable bursts, with few hitting their target. Only a few elements save The Pirates! from being sent to Davy Jones’ locker.
Our hearty band of ne’er-do-wells for the evening are comprised of characters whose names are actually descriptions of their most notable traits. Memo to the screenwriter: that’s not funny.
*checks screenwriter bio on IMDb*
Hamish McColl (adapting Gideon Defoe’s book) also wrote the scripts for Mr. Bean’s Holiday and Johnny English Reborn. This ship may be scuppered before we even set sail.
Anyway, under the command of the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) are Pirate With Gout (Brendan Gleeson, likeable), Albino Pirate (Russell Tovey, irritating), Pirate With Scarf, (Martin Freeman, bland) and Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen, forced joke). In any other pirate movie, these guys would be after some legitimate booty or be in a tussle with the crown over stolen doubloons. Instead, the Pirate Captain wants to win the coveted Pirate of the Year award. It’s a silly idea which is primed for a kids’ movie, but Aardman’s previous work has always appealed to both children and adults, and The Pirates! never manages to keep both audiences pleased. For the most part, both will be bored by scenes which purport to be filled with funny banter, but raise nary a giggle. Some giggles do come occassionally, but the belly laughs of Chicken Run simply aren’t here. A cameo from the Elephant Man is about the only joke that lingers in this critic’s memory.
The Pirate Captain finds he has to plunder a lot more booty to win the prize. On his quest to do so, he encounters a wimpy Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who befriends the Captain in order to present the Captain’s pet dodo Polly to a scientific convention. Polly is one of The Pirates!’ saving graces. She’s one of two cute animal sidekicks (the other being a monkey butler named Mr. Bobo) who frequently steal scenes with the slightest sound or look. They make more impact than Salma Hayek or Jeremy Piven (as Pirate Captain’s rivals Cutlass Liz and Black Bellamy); their screentime amounts to pittance.
Another saving grace is Hugh Grant. Why did nobody think of getting him in a recording booth before?! The Pirate Captain is a charming old cad, with a beard-smothered stiff upper lip and a desperate desire to be taken seriously. He’s certainly more interesting than his nominal foe, the pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton). With a weak bad-guy plot and a one-dimensional character, she’s no Mrs. Tweedy.
The animation is typically top-notch, though CGI is employed extensively (if barely noticeably) for backgrounds. The richness of the models offsets the lack of depth in the script and the characters, but the pretty scenery can only do so much before we’re mired once more in a plot that is both unnecessarily busy and driven by unmemorable characters and gags. Investing in the plots around Wallace and Gromit or Ginger the chicken meant making us care about the characters first. Compared to Curse of The Were-Rabbit or Chicken Run, The Pirates in an Adventure With Scientists! feels disappointingly slight. A few good gags and a charming lead save it from having to walk the plank, but it’s so limp that it’ll have to be thrown in the brig alongside Jack Sparrow’s over-exposed drunken debauchery.