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Family favourite ahoy! A hapless pirate, an evil Queen Victoria and a parrot that's really a dodo make Aardman's latest film a comedy treasure trove



00:24 GMT, 30 March 2012


Verdict: A spring hit for all the family

Twenty-three years after they enriched our culture with those national treasures Wallace and Gromit, Aardman have come up with a certain spring hit.

The Pirates! is a welcome return to Plasticine and stop-motion animation. It took five years to make, but was well worth the effort.

Directed by Peter Lord (who gave us Chicken Run), it starts with an irresistible idea. The world’s most ineffectual pirate captain, handily named Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), has designs on the Caribbean’s coveted Pirate Of The Year Award, handed out annually by the Pirate King (Brian Blessed at his most bombastic).

Yo ho ho: Pirate Captain swings into action

Yo ho ho: Pirate Captain swings into action

But Pirate Captain, despite having a luxuriant beard about which he is pathetically vain, is nowhere near as impressive at looting, pillaging and all-round terrorising as his insultingly contemptuous rivals Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek).

The only award Pirate Captain has in his trophy cabinet is a rosette commemorating his achievement as runner-up for ‘best anecdote about a squid’.

Pirate Captain also has the most rubbish crew ever to pollute the high seas. These include his number two called, of course, Number Two (Martin Freeman), Pirate With Gout (Brendan Gleeson), Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen) and an unnamed pirate who’s really just a fish wearing a hat. Help is at hand, in the form of aspiring scientist Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who is not the revered figure he is today, but a nervous geek worried he’ll never get a girlfriend.

Darwin reveals that the captain’s adored parrot Polly is, in fact, a dodo. If the crew will sail him to London and enable Darwin to present the bird to his fellow scientists, he suggests they will have the riches that they have so long desired.

We are amused: Queen Victoria (voiced by Imelda Staunton) hates pirates more than anything

We are amused: Queen Victoria (voiced by Imelda Staunton) hates pirates more than anything

One snag is that it’s by no means certain Darwin is telling the truth. An even bigger snag is diminutive, pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton). She, weirdly, turns into the villain of the piece.

Aardman films have a sense of humour unlike any others. Humour is notoriously subjective, and I can imagine many people remaining straight-faced when Grant explains that Blood Island is ‘so named because it’s the exact shape of . . . some blood’.

They might, equally well, remain unsmiling at the sight of a wanted poster for a notorious pirate, offering as a reward ‘12 doubloons and a free pen’. But there you go. Pedants will point out Queen Victoria wasn’t obsessed with pirates, and that the ideas behind On The Origin Of Species were not suggested to Darwin by a pirate captain with the voice of Hugh Grant. Oh, and the last dodo died in 1681.

I thought the first half of this film was outstandingly funny, and was well on the way to awarding it five stars. Then, unfortunately, the plot kicks in. It’s more silly than funny, and nowhere near as inspired as the jokes, which peter out in the final 20 minutes.

So the second half is not on a par with Aardman’s best work. I was also tempted to deduct another star because 3D adds nothing to the film, but I thought that would be unnecessarily grumpy.

The truth is that it’s a class above Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas. And, because of the dazzling wealth of background detail, it will probably bear seeing twice.

Gideon Defoe’s script is unsurprisingly faithful to his own books, and there’s plenty in this to entertain all ages. The U certificate suggests it is suitable for children of four upwards, and — wonder of wonders — it is.