Sometimes the thing you do first is the thing you do best. With its fifth feature-length film, Aardman Animations has returned to stop-motion animation and Plasticine model-making: painstaking processes concomitant with a high level of attention to detail. And this is the main reason why The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists feels like a return to form.
There's treasure buried in its every frame. In fact, although it's churlish to complain, one's attention is sometimes distracted from whatever precision-timed gag or swashbuckling action is occurring in the foreground by the wealth of jokes tucked away in the background. (Keep an eye out for the sample jars aboard the Beagle, or the street signs when the action is back on dry land. In fact, if you like puns, keep an eye out for any and every bit of writing, be it label, newspaper headline, menu item or that sign for Napoleon Blownapart's dynamite and gunpowder supplies.)
The film's 19th-century pirate captain hero, who is called the Pirate Captain and voiced by Hugh Grant, is in the same tradition of endearingly enthusiastic amateurs as previous of the studio's creations, including Wallace, of "... & Gromit" fame, and Arthur Christmas, from last year's digitally generated and disappointingly conventional Christmas film of the same name.
There seems little danger of the Pirate Captain ever winning the Pirate of the Year award he covets: the reward for his capture is a measly 12 doubloons and a free pen; one of his crew members is actually a fish that he's dressed up in a hat; and the ship's mascot, Polly, isn't even a parrot. She's a dodo. But this last fact might actually be the Pirate Captain's making, once he boards the Beagle and the young Charles Darwin (David Tennant) suggests that presenting the presumed extinct bird to the Royal Society would yield fame and riches.
As well as that very specific sense of humour that characterises Aardman productions (it is somehow exactly right that one of the pirates should sport a Blue Peter badge, for example), Pirates! has an invigorating new irreverence – presumably a product of the imagination of Gideon Defoe, who originally wrote and then adapted the source novels. Darwin, for example, is a geeky and callow virgin, who is frequently outsmarted by his trained chimpanzee butler, and is driven to act less by a thirst for knowledge than in the forlorn hope of ever impressing a woman. "I'll never get a girlfriend," he confides to his journal.
The empire-building Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), meanwhile, is the dastardly and megalomaniacal Bond-style villain of the piece, complete with mechanical undergarments and booby-trapped underground lair.
As one cheerfully dim pirate is heard to exclaim: "This is our most educational adventure ever!"
More historical, or at least mythological, characters are ill-done-to in Wrath of the Titans, a streamlined, all-action sequel to and improvement on 2010's Clash of the Titans remake. Sam Worthington returns as Perseus, who had previously hung up his sword but is persuaded to hold it back aloft and mount a rescue mission to the underworld in order to save his father Zeus (Liam Neeson) from his uncle, Hades (Ralph Fiennes), and the universe from destruction at the hands of the Titans.
It is not a good film, by any measure other than that of the animators' advanced techniques and skill. It is set in uncharted landscapes where there be dragons, hydra and cyclopses – or, more accurately, cyclopes – and with the exception of the actors and their costumes, I doubt that a single element of the production ever existed outside the digital realm. And yet, on the giant Imax screen on which I saw it, at least, the molten rock of Tartarus, beneath the underworld, looked real. The giant – and I do mean giant – cyclopes not only looked real but as though they were in the same place in time and space as Perseus, instead of painted on a green screen at a later date.
There was a time when people believed figures such as Zeus and Perseus really existed, and perhaps they even believed in flying horses and one-eyed giants. Strangely, in their 2012 incarnations, it's the animated monsters that seem the most believably alive, while the figures played by humans are dull and characterless archetypes.