The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (2012)

aka The Pirates! Band of Misfits

2018 #8
Peter Lord | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | U / PG

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!

After a foray into CGI with the decent-but-not-exceptional Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas, Aardman took this adaptation of Gideon Defoe’s comedic novels as a chance to return to what they know best: stop-motion animation.

It stars a ragtag band of misfits— ugh, don’t get me started on the title change… but if you did, I might say something like the opening few paragraphs of this review. Anyway, as I was saying, it stars a ragtag crew of pirates, who are led (appropriately enough) by the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant). His greatest desire is to win the Pirate of the Year Award, an honour he’s never achieved because, frankly, he’s a bit of a rubbish pirate. When he bumps into Charles Darwin (David Tennant) he stumbles upon a possible route to victory, but first he’ll have to contend with pirate-hating monarch Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton).

Naturally it’s a tale not so much of derring-do as of humorous shenanigans, though in truth it’s not the studio’s most hysterical offering, ticking along with a level of gentle amusement rather than outright hilarity. That said, some parts do spark considerable mirth, like a trained monkey who ‘speaks’ through word cards, and there are background gags aplenty for the keen-eyed viewer. Plus it’s all carried off with the ineffable charm of Aardman’s hand-crafted puppetry, and that goes a long way (at least for this reviewer).

Band of misfits

I’ve always thought the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (especially the first one) more-or-less nailed the tone I would’ve wanted from an adaptation of the beloved Monkey Island games, but I read a commenter somewhere say The Pirates is probably the closest we’ll ever get to a Monkey Island film and, thinking about it, he’s probably right. The Monkey Island games are mostly cartoonish comedies, with a fair dose of irreverence and anachronism, and The Pirates offers up a similar brand of humour. (Maybe this is a niche comparison to make, given the height of Monkey Island’s popularity was over 25 years ago now, but, hey, these things are always ripe for rediscovery).

Despite being the fourth highest-grossing stop-motion film ever made, distributor Sony judged The Pirates to be a flop and the sequel Aardman were planning got canned. That’s a pity, because you feel this motley crew could’ve led us on another amusing adventure or two yet.

4 out of 5

Aardman’s new film, Early Man, is in UK cinemas now.

Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)

2015 #183
Mark Burton & Richard Starzak | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK & France / silent (English) | U / PG

Shaun the Sheep started life in the 1995 Wallace & Gromit short A Close Shave. Eventually granted his own TV spin-off aimed at little kids, it’s become a global hit thanks to the decision to make it a silent comedy — no need to pay for pesky dubbing into other languages, while its sheer quality (it is Aardman, after all) helps it to transcend national boundaries. This year, Shaun and friends made the leap to the big screen, in what may be the year’s best animated movie.

The film begins with Shaun and the other ovine occupants of Mossy Bottom Farm getting fed up with the daily grind of being sheep, so they concoct a plan to distract sheepdog Bitzer so they can lure the Farmer into a slumber and take over the farmhouse for a well-earned break. Naturally things go awry, and the Farmer ends up whisked off to the Big City. With no one to feed or care for them, Shaun, Bitzer, and the rest hop on a bus and set off to retrieve their friend.

Expanding a series of five-minute-ish shorts to feature length is always a risky proposal, but fortunately we’re in the more than capable hands of Aardman Animation here, and they’ve come up with a plot big enough to fill a feature running time. In a style one might describe as ‘classical’, you can break the film down into individual segments and sequences, each one a crafted vignette of silent slapstick. That doesn’t make the story episodic, but rather serves to keep the humour focused — no gags are overused or outstay their welcome. Indeed, some fly so fast that they’re literally blink-and-you’ll-miss it. I suspect this means Shaun would reward repeat viewings, particularly to spot all the little background details.

It’s also in the details that Shaun proves itself to be a true family film. Like the TV show, it’s sweetly innocent and simple enough for little’uns (that US PG is thanks to a couple of oh-so-rude fart jokes), but there’s a sophistication to the way that simplicity is handled that adults can enjoy. There are also references and in-jokes for the grown-ups; not hidden dirty jokes that’ll put you in the awkward position of having to explain to the kids why you were laughing, but neat puns (note the towns that the Big City is twinned with) and references to other films (like Taxi Driver. Yes, really.)

Naturally, technical aspects are top-notch. Aardman are the kings of claymation, consistently delivering work in which the animation is polished, clever, and surprising, but which also retains the sense that it was achieved by hand (unlike some other films — Corpse Bride, say — which are so slick you begin to wonder if they’re actually CGI). I always marvel at stop-motion anyway — the persistence to animate something a frame at a time, taking days to create one shot and months to create one scene, is a dedication and skill I can barely fathom — but Aardman’s productions routinely push beyond your expectations of the form.

Aardman’s stop-motion silent comedy will certainly lose to Inside Out across the board come awards season (apart from at the BAFTAs, perhaps), but it’s the more inventive, amusing, innovative, accomplished, and impressive achievement. Delightful.

4 out of 5

Shaun the Sheep’s Christmas special, The Farmer’s Llamas, is on BBC One on Boxing Day at 6:10pm.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Flushed Away (2006)

2008 #57
David Bowers & Sam Fell | 81 mins | DVD | U / PG

Flushed AwayAardman Animations, the Bristol-based company most famous for Wallace & Gromit and Creature Comforts, branch out into CGI for the first time with this tale of rats trying to save the sewers of London. CGI rats? Yes, thoughts of Ratatouille are inevitable. Can Aardman beat Pixar at their own game? You might be surprised…

The primary reason for comparison here, as mentioned, are the rats. Despite Pixar’s stated intention to redeem rats in the eyes of viewers — to turn them from vermin into loveable little fluffy things, essentially — I felt the same about bloody rodents at the end of Ratatouille as I did at the start. Here, however, they’re Disneyfied (oh the irony) — where Pixar had cartooned versions of the real thing, Aardman have given them a human shape. It’s surely this disjunction from reality that makes them more likeable, but it does mean there’s never that distracting “but they’re vermin” impulse. They’re humanisation is helped by the performances of a star-studded cast, including Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet amongst the ratty voices. Ian McKellen is a fabulously dastardly villain, ably supported by a pair of comedy henchman… and Jean Reno as a French frog. Yep, the humour is that British.

One thing Pixar unquestionably still excel at is the actual animation, however. Ratatouille is gorgeous to watch and will take some effort to beat; Flushed Away, on the other hand, doesn’t really come close to Pixar’s earlier efforts, never mind Ratatouille’s artistry. It’s mostly passable, especially once the action migrates to the mini-London in the sewers, but at other times it looks little better than a computer game. The second biggest mistake (I’ll get to the worst in a minute) is opening the film in a pristine up-market house — presumably it was an artistic choice to have it so tidy and clean, but this has the unfortunate side effect of highlighting the animation’s plainness right from the start. Once the story moves underground the level of detail improves, but it takes a little while to get there.

A bigger error was made with the lip-synching, however, and obviously this dogs the film throughout. Aardman consciously designed the characters’ mouth movements to imitate the clay animation the company usually employs (Flushed Away is CG because of the volume of water featured, an element too complex to achieve in stop motion). Instead of invoking that stop motion feel it just looks cheap and underdone — such jerkiness is easily ignored as part of the technique when viewing clay animation, but there’s no need or excuse for it in CGI. Ultimately it looks like the animators were lazy or the rendering has skipped frames, and is frequently distracting.

It’s possible to put the disappointing quality of the animation aside though, because the script’s a good’un. Like the animation it doesn’t really get going until we’re flushed into the sewers, but once there it’s pleasantly witty, full of good one-liners and clever visual gags. The latter includes a good line in intertextuality, with entertaining and easily-noticed references to Finding Nemo, X-Men and others, including numerous nods to Wallace & Gromit. They don’t dominate, but their variety makes for a nice bit of I-spy for both kids and adults of varying degrees of film-buffery.

Despite the inevitable comparisons, Flushed Away is really a very different beast to Ratatouille. Pixar’s effort is, for want of a better word, artistic; Flushed Away is simply a family-orientated slice of adventure-comedy… rather of the kind you might expect Pixar to produce. Aardman’s initial CG effort is not better or worse than ‘the other CG rat flick’, but it is perhaps more like what you — or, at least, kids — would expect. With a starry cast, strong script and good sense of visual comedy, Flushed Away manages to overcome its lower production values to create an above-average piece of entertainment. And that’s, as Wallace would say, cracking.

4 out of 5