Based on the series of all-ages novels by Gideon Defoe (who also has a writing credit on the movie), The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists tells the story of The Pirate Captain and his band of similarly literally-monikered cohorts. Their favourite pastimes include plundering, ham night, and arguing about the relative merits of cutlasses. When the 59th annual Pirate of the Year awards appear on the horizon, it’s time for The Pirate Captain to break his losing streak and win that most coveted prize. As is the way for this sort of tale, things don’t go quite according to plan.
Aardman didn’t ask to be the British Pixar, yet here we are. There’s a healthy tendency, after all, of us providing somewhat tenuous facsimiles to gargantuan imports. Cliff is the British Elvis. Gorgo is the British King Kong (okay, yes, the British Godzilla. I didn’t want to muddy the waters here, keep moving), the So-Solid Crew are the British Wu-Tang. It’s foolproof. With that kind of cultural lineage behind them, the folks at Aardman face a not-un-Herculean task. Not only must they fail to be the British Pixar, but they must fail in an endearing way, preferably at the last hurdle. What better way of achieving this than by making a movie about people failing in an endearing way?
The Pirates!… represents both a return and departure for Aardman. It’s a return to the stop-motion aesthetic that gave much to their identity, after intermediarie Flushed Away (2006) and Arthur Christmas (2011) provided a certain dilution. It’s also a departure from the somewhat domestic tone of previous full-length animations, focusing more on gags and less on character arcs. Despite owing a debt to the likes of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker (creators of landmark genre spoofs Airplane! and Police Squad) productions, and with cutaway gags reminiscent of numerous modern American sitcoms, this is an almost-wholly British affair. The cod-historical setting, alongside a surprisingly fierce irreverence to its figures, evokes the fondly-remembered likes of Blackadder, Maid Marion and Her Merry Men, and the more recent Horrible Histories (minus any real attempt at education). Queen Victoria is presented as a petulant shrill, inordinately incensed by the notion of seafaring piracy. Charles Darwin, bless him, nearly steals the show as a pathetic, horny caricature of his bygone counterpart.
Indeed, the attachment of late-nineteenth century scientific culture to not just the plot but the title (though the international release replaces this with the wetter ‘Band of Misfits’), is possibly able to annoy as well as endear. Not just simply through the gleeful smudging of history (Jane Austen, unfortunately, cannot qualify herself as Victorian-era), but in its complete and noble refusal to teach anyone anything. There’s nothing here to give the creationist or denier a particularly sleepless night. If anything, it helps continue the affectionate cliché of scientists being both socially maladroit and monstrous to nature. Something that, at least, scientists themselves are generally good-natured about.
Unlike its American inspirations, there’s a refreshing paucity of modish pop-culture referencing, or nods to the camera. There are no contrived Godfather allusions to keep Dad awake through the silliness. There’s simply a commitment to its own occasionally wayward sense of humour. We may find one too many pratfalls and some of the lines feel like more like place-holders for tardy inspiration, but it’s worth stressing that it would be – and has been – the case for any piece of work with such a high gag ratio. The inherent charm of the production means these bumps feel more like a case of different strokes.
The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! is a Beano comic come to life, with all the merits and demerits that implies. Not every character gets their requisite time in the sun and some even feel more like they’re still on the starting blocks for a currently ethereal franchise. The title itself seems to confirm this confidence, if not for the witty payoff within the film, revealing that the titular characters frequently get in adventures with absurd companions. A broad refusal to bow to the demands of sincerity or sentiment (even the prerequisite ‘sad montage’ sequence is scored by a parody song) leads to a sacrifice of momentum, as one is simply angling more for the next joke than the fate of our heroes. Nevertheless, it remains a joy throughout, with gorgeous art design and superb set-pieces. Go see it!