Pampered pet rat Roddy St. James (Hugh Jackman) may appear to live the life of luxury with his lavish Kensington home, gargantuan television and high class lifestyle, but his existence is lonely, and he craves companionship. When his owners leave him for a few days, his world is rocked by the arrival of loutish hooligan sewer rat Sid (Shane Richie), who takes over the house and ridicules Roddy’s way of life. Roddy’s plan to evict Sid – via the toilet bubble bath – goes awry, and results in Roddy being flushed instead, leaving him lost in the vast underworld of London’s sewage system, where he becomes intricated with Kate Winslet’s tomboyish Rita and a plot involving a royal ruby, a computer cable belt and a mysterious plot concocted by sewer mafia boss The Toad (Ian McKellen).
The closest the UK will ever have to a Pixar, and to be honest not that far off really, Bristol-based Aardman Animations have spent years toiling away at another masterpiece, this time based on the first in a series of ridiculous yet thoroughly entertaining books by British author Gideon Defoe. Just like Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run and everything else Aardman has ever left a plasticine thumbprint on, Pirates is imbued with a timeless sense of humour in a world that almost – almost – makes sense, but is always hilarious.
We follow the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant on the finest form he’s been in years) and his rag-tag band of misfits (including Martin Freeman, Brendan Gleeson and Ashley Jensen) along with their definitely-not-a-parrot mascot Polly as they set out to win the much coveted Pirate of the Year award, against rivals Lenny Henry, Salma Hayek and Jeremy Piven (whose voice really annoyed me as I couldn’t place it for the entire film). The only problem is… the Pirate Captain is a pretty useless pirate, with every plundering attempt ending in failure. Fortunately, a chance encounter with a repressed, desperate Charles Darwin (David Tennant) leads to all manner of escapades, including entering a scientific competition and a run-in with a furious Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton, half the cast are Harry Potter actors).
If I have to find a flaw, it’s that everything moves by so damn quickly. Every character is a brilliant creation, yet few are on screen long enough to fully appreciate them, and often the rapid progression of the plot gives a feeling that some jokes are left by the wayside, 88 minutes long is nowhere near enough, but one feels the animators are happier their wrists were not strained further. The one character who really should have more screen time is the scene-stealing, self-subtitling monkey.
I’ve mentioned before in the review for Chicken Run that British animation company Aardman do enjoy filling their films with parodies, puns and homages, with this picture proving no exception. From faithful pooch Gromit having a degree from Dogwarts university, power tools made by Botch and scenes stolen from the likes of King Kong and An American Werewolf in London, the gags come thick and fast, unashamedly crowbarring in references to other rabbit-related movies (a shop called Harvey’s, Bright Eyes playing on the radio).
However, endless jokes are not enough, as the predictable (if enjoyably surreal) story of a man (Wallace, voiced as ever by the dependable Peter Sallis) and a rabbit swapping physicalities and personality traits after a bout of brainwashing goes wrong leaves too many loose ends and plays plot points signposted in neon letters as twists and shock reveals. A game British cast (Helena Bonham Carter as vegetable mimicking Lady Tottington, Ralph Fiennes as the blunderbuss wielding diminutive Victor) are solid, but not quite enough to warrant repeat viewings.
The Great Escape, with chickens! For Aardman’s first feature length picture, Nick Park and his team borrowed heavily from a British classic, with the Hilts-esque Ginger (Julia Sawalha) and her Scottish accomplice Mac (thankfully not shot up against the fences) leading a brood of chickens to freedom after their tyrannical farmers make a switch from eggs to chicken pies. The parallels run deep, from the multiple escape attempts using homemade and stolen tools to a heavy American influence courtesy of Mel Gibson’s circus cockerel Rocky Rhodes, although I very much doubt that this was based on a true story. Other elements, from a Flight of the Phoenix inspired mechanical plane to a Raiders style hat gag (by law, every film featuring a vertically closing door must feature the hero sliding under it to safety, before reaching back to retrieve their fallen hat) all add to the fun, but I was annoyed at the farmers complete lack of concern that, not only were their hens wearing hats and scarves, but one of them was wearing glasses. Timothy Spall and Phil Daniel’s east end spiv rats were excellent additions too.