The next time you hear someone complain that this country no longer "makes anything", just point them in the direction of Aardman.
This film company, progenitors of the great Wallace and Gromit, among others, are producing goods of a quality and consistency not only unusual in today's economic climate but remarkable in the competitive field of modern animation. They will never lord it in the way of a Pixar or a Disney: theirs is a different sensibility. In every atom of its craftsmanship and style the Aardman output is as British as a Raleigh bicycle – another company that has ceased to manufacture in the UK. All the more reason to feel proud of this lot.
Their latest, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, is their first stop-motion feature since Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit seven years ago (Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas were computer-animated). That seems a long wait, until you remember the monumental labours that go into making every nanosecond of their signature stop-motion films. We are told that a crew of 525 people worked on this, including 33 animators and 41 shooting units. Yet however awesome its technical accomplishment, the heart and soul of an Aardman film is its comic invention, and Gideon Defoe's droll adaptation of his own high-seas yarn shivers more timbers than all the sorry Pirates of the Caribbean movies put together.
Hugh Grant (remember him?) is in excellent voice as the Pirate Captain, a charming but clueless beardy whose crew of misfits adore him ("He's the best thing since boil-in-the-bag ham"). The Captain's dearest ambition is to win the Pirate of the Year award, but with booty revenues on the slim side he's no match for rivals Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) or Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek). He's more a cut-price pirate than a cut-throat, and without his loyal second-in-command (Martin Freeman) he might not be even that.
A chance meeting mid-ocean with Charles Darwin (David Tennant) changes everything: he alone realises that the Captain's beloved parrot Polly is a rarer bird altogether, a dodo, in fact, whose discovery could make all their fortunes. So it's full sail ahead to London and an audience with Queen Victoria herself (Imelda Staunton), a termagant in iron petticoats with a sinister connoisseurship of the exotic.
Yes, of course, it's as nutty as squirrel poop. Charles Darwin's London house may have contained many wonders, but they would not have included flushing toilets or light switches. But then Aardmanland is a world unto itself, with its own feverish logic and switchback plotting. If there wasn't at least one giddy chase sequence it wouldn't be the daft place we know and love: here it's a bath-tub full of pirates careening headlong down a staircase in pursuit of a monkey with a kidnapped dodo. Well, why wouldn't they? Even before this we've marvelled at a bravura series of pirate entrances, including one who crashes through a tavern wall to emerge from the mouth of a whale – not bad for animation based on Plasticine.
God, as ever, is in the details, which whizz past your eyes in such profusion you fear that there's another corner of the screen you've missed completely. Here are a few I loved: the Captain dunking a custard cream in his tea-mug, the Irish mate whose tricorn hat sports a Blue Peter badge, a celebrity-gawp mag called Ahoy!. And then there's Darwin's superb monkey, who communicates either through cue-cards or an impeccable Keaton-esque deadpan. Do we laugh just at this primate's gift for slapstick, or is it the sly way his creators have made him look so like his master? (Who wouldn't have conjured up the theory of evolution with a pet like that to work from?)
So it goes, one nifty joke leapfrogging another, one squiggle of animated magic exceeding the bit before. Peter Lord's rat-a-tat-tat direction would almost exhaust you were it not for the wit-blessed charm swirling about it. You hardly know what loopy turn the film will take next: all that's certain is that it will dazzle the eye, and plaster a smile on your face.
Greek Gods may have cooler weapons than pirates – whizzing thunderbolts, molten swords, flaming tridents – but they're not half so much fun on screen. Two years after Clash we are now invited to savour Wrath of the Titans, a 3D gods-and-monsters extravaganza that checks in again with Perseus (Sam Worthington), the demigod son of Zeus (Liam Neeson), and now a father himself to a 10-year-old boy. All is not well on Olympus. On account of humanity's, like, total lack of respect the gods are running low on immortal juice. Zeus applies for help to banished brother Hades (Ralph Fiennes) but has the tables turned on him when embittered son Ares (Edgar Ramirez) foments a coup that will unleash no-good Kronos and his Titans on the earth. The clock is ticking...
Actually it was more likely my watch I heard ticking, each time my head drooped to rest on my forearm. Not that it's a terrible bore. The set-pieces are immersive, at least at the London Imax where I saw it – every monster looks about 10ft tall, and those fireballs could barbecue whole landscapes. We are in the fiery pit of Hell, after all, where Perseus and his companions – Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) and fellow demigod Agenor (Toby Kebbell) – have gone to rescue Zeus and thereby avert the destruction of mankind. You may even spot Bill Nighy beneath the fright wig and beard as Hephaestus, blacksmith to the gods.
So, not terrible: but certainly a bore. The screenplay, by Dan Mazeau and David Leslie Johnson, mashes up the mythology without making any of it sing. Interesting to note that it's "based on characters created by Beverley Cross". Who knew? Zeus, Perseus, Poseidon and the rest of them, all the work of a man named Beverley. Hats off to you, sir!
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