One of the most interesting things about writing about films and big cultural trends is seeing what stuff you just get wrong. For example, back when it was about to be released during the height of Twilight exhaustion, I was ready to bet good money on nobody being interested in Sweden’s creepy vampire export Let the Right One In. I would have lost that money. And I would have lost more money two years later, when I was sure no one was going to taken in by what turned out to be a genuinely excellent remake of that film, Let Me In. Back in 2008, I was hopeful about Marvel’s plans for a multi-film continuity project, but honestly thought it would end up being little more than a footnote to the vastly superior work being done by Warner Brothers and DC Comics. The point is: we all get some things wrong. We try our best to keep our analytical instruments well tuned and to pay attention to various popular trends and forces when making our estimates, but sometimes we just end up putting money down on a horse that doesn’t even make it to the finish line.
For another case in point: if you’d asked me during the summer of 2012, I would have been all too happy to tell you that in some years time – say five or ten – we would be looking back on British studio Aardman Animation’s early work with Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run as the company’s coarse adolescent years, precursors to the comedic heights the studio reached with 2011’s Arthur Christmas and – especially – with 2012’s The Pirates! A Band of Misfits. And boy, I would have been wrong on that one. Just three years later the consensus seems to very much be in the opposite direction, with animation fans canonizing the early work with more fervor than ever and my two golden gooses garnering little attention. And with Shaun the Sheep, the company’s first production since The Pirates!, being a return to the stock characters and narrative style of the Wallace and Gromit world, there now seems to be a more official stamp on which creative well Aardman wants to be drawing from, at least for the immediate future.
Sooo… yeah. Quite a big of egg on my face from that one.
But okay, no big deal. Again, everyone makes mistakes, the world of arts commentary would be much less interesting if we could all make unfailing predictions about what’s going to stick around in the public consciousness and what isn’t. What is slightly more of a big deal, though – at least on a personal level – is the disorientating sensation that there’s been some disconnect between what I saw and what the public at large saw. It is, to put it mildly, a bit disheartening to feel like you’ve seen a beloved artist take a major step forward, only to have everyone shrug and go back to the older work. Which is not meant to be a slight against Aardman’s earlier work; there is tremendously skilled animation and wonderful comedy in their material from the nineties and the early 21st Century. But just so you understand where I’m coming from, imagine watching the perfectly entertaining Castle of Cagliostro, then watching the truly transcendental Laputa, and then having the entire world, including Miyazaki, focus their attention on Cagliostro.
The Miyazaki comparison might be a particularly apt one, actually. Much like the master Japanese animator’s work, you can feel a certain leap forward in the style and tone of the Aardman Films when you watch them in order. Not so much a departure away from the old standbys and trademarks, but a certain blossoming of new features. Aardman Studios made its name on a particular note of quirky British comedy and painstakingly crafted Claymation models and miniature sets, all of which are front and center in all their films. But somewhere between Curse of the Were-Rabbit and The Pirates! something shifted in the way the studio thought about animation, joke construction, and presentation. Everything from the way the characters move to the rhythm of the jokes feels a bit swifter, not just faster but more relentlessly ferocious. There was a sense of unrestrained possibilities and anarchic possibility that wasn’t quite as prevalent in the studio’s old school fare.
Now, if you’re not familiar with the film – and if you are joining us from somewhere in the States, the box office says you’re probably not – what’s the story of The Pirates? Once upon Victorian times, there was a merry pirate ship, crewed by a fearless swath of ferocious buccaneers and led by the terrifying figure of The Pirate Captain. (No other name given.) The Captain (played by Hugh Grant at his most haughtily affected) has but one ambition in life: to win the Pirate of the Year Award, awarded annually to whatever corsair has plundered the most booty and otherwise lived up to the criminal ideals of the pirate code. Just one problem, though: the Captain’s crew is actually mostly made up by an ineffectual bunch of softies, and the commander himself is more handy dandy than hardened criminal. So, in a last minute ditch for glory, the crew sets sail to modern London, where they get involved in a complicated scheme involving a scientific conference. (Wait, what?) But after their co-conspirator, a young Charles Darwin, (huh?) ends up being associated with a diabolical Queen Victoria in their hunt for the miraculously living dodo bird the crew’s been keeping as a pet (bwah?) the crew must pull together to escape with the booty, their lives, and their beloved team mascot.
Also involved, to varying degrees, are a giant sea monster, Jane Austen, and a highly skilled monkey butler.
If all of that sounds… completely friggin’ bonkers, well, yes. This is partially what I mean by the film’s sense of escalation. The earlier Aardman films work by setting up the parameters of their weirdness and then riffing on them. Wallace and Gromit is set around a version of English rural life that’s been stretched and twisted the way a Chuck Jones cartoon might distort the world, and Chicken Run works by setting the conventions of a POW film within the setting of a poultry farm. The Pirates! doesn’t have a neat organizing principle like those films, save maybe for a sheer sense of anachronistic anarchy. The film starts off in what looks like a Pirates of the Caribbean setting, casually saunters into a mock version of Victorian England, and then passes by a Las Vegas-style stage show on its way to its climax on board a steam-punk warship. It goes beyond elasticity of setting and genre – that’s what Curse of the Were-Rabbit had. This is deliberate attempt at delirium, a world aggressively constructed out amalgamation and inconsistency.
The scale of humor received a corresponding uptick. There is, for lack of better words, a greater sense of gentility and patience to the jokes in the earlier Aardman films. Gags escalated slowly, building off of expectations and pay offs. In The Pirates!, the jokes just come fast and furious, pitched at such a breakneck velocity that it’s impossible to catch every bit of humor in the film in one sitting. Given the rubber-band plasticity of the universe in which they live in, the characters are free to unleash whatever crazy joke the animators can come up with and they go for it. There’s sight gags, puns, a few Jane Austen jokes, some funny signs buried in the background of a tense scenes, pirate humor, funny reversals, a delightful character who can only speak through cue-cards and is preternaturally well-prepared for every occasion, historical riffs, callbacks, repetitions, surprises, it’s just an avalanche of jokes. The key, however, is that they’re not sacrificing quality in their bid for speed and quantity. Each joke is still finely crafted and fine-tuned; they’ve just been upped in volume. To belabor a metaphor, if the older Aardman films move with the calculated precision of a Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner cartoon, The Pirates! apes the hyperactive style of an Edgar Wright comedy.
Fortunately for the film, the animation and the creative team are able to keep up with the comedy sprint pace that the film sets for itself. The voice cast is rock-solid all around, with the team MVPs probably being Martin Freeman as the Captain’s fussy second-in-command and Harry Potter veteran Imelda Stauton as a scenery-chewing, evil Queen Victoria. But the real standout work is, of course, done by Aardman’s veteran team of Claymation animators. For this kind of comedy to work, the visuals must be, above everything else, crystal clear, with every moment of the rapid-fire barrage registering cleanly. They acquit themselves superbly, striking a miraculous balance between expressivity, speed, and legibility. Never is this more visible than in the film’s comedy centerpiece, a madcap chase scene through Charles Darwin’s London mansion. Starting on the rooftop and working its way through practically every room in the house, the chase involves six people, a dodo bird, and a monkey, each with an individual agenda and specific actions. It’s a comedy marathon, with the camera, the characters, and the thousands of individual details and trinkets the filmmakers crammed into the background all trying to outrace each other… but it never descends into visual anarchy. You might miss jokes just because of how much is being thrown at you, but you’re never lost in terms of what’s happening or why.
But there’s something beyond all of that. Even with all of that in the works, this film feels like it’s too madcap – too wild and irreverent – and it should fall apart. A mix this rich shouldn’t work. And yet this one does. How?
Well… it took me a couple of viewings to realize this, but I think it’s because of the way the film is animated. Not just in the high caliber of the animation itself, but in the quality of it and the fact that it is stop-motion Claymation. Some time ago, we wrote a piece about stop-motion animation, and how on the surface, it seems to combine all of the difficulties of both live action filmmaking and 2D animation. And in a way it does, but it also combines all of the strengths, and it’s the only medium that could produce a film like The Pirates! Live action could never be stylized or flexible enough to go off in as many directions as this film does, or to bring elements from so many disparate time periods into a single aesthetic. It’s such a crazed mishmash that it comes close to just feeling weightless and silly… except then you look at it. And because it is Claymation, because it’s animated on real objects, you feel the realness of it. You feel the way in which every object in the film has weight and depth to it, the way in which all of these insane objects really were put in the same room and made to bounce off each other. There is a tactile reality to the film and its characters, and that acts like the anchor point the rest of the film needs to stay tense and sharp. Above everything else, that’s why I love Aardman’s animation applied to these narrative and comedic sensibilities: they push each other a lot farther than either of them could go by themselves.
Unfortunately, we’re unlikely to see another film like The Pirates! from Aardman anytime soon. In spite of the film’s strong box office abroad and Oscar nomination, plans for a sequel were scrapped shortly after its release, with many commentators attributing that decision to the film’s lackluster underperformed in the U.S. box office, and the studio has retreated into more familiar territory for its follow-up. With critical raves and a strong box office showing in its home country, Shaun the Sheep looks like it’s going to be another fan favorite for the British studio. Still… if in the lead up to the film’s release this Friday you find yourself wanting to revisit some older Aardman work, consider taking a chance on the studio’s more frenetic redheaded stepchild. Between the cutlasses, fast talking, and historical references, I’m sure you’ll get a few big laughs. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll join me in hoping that Aardman will stick their necks out one more time on whatever their next big project is.