The film follows the exploits of the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), a notoriously inept pirate who sets his sights on winning the Pirate Of The Year award. After crossing paths with Charles Darwin (David Tennant) however, the Pirate Captain changes his aim, hoping for success of a more scientific nature in London.
The Pirates! comes from Aardman Animation, most famous for bringing Wallace & Gromit to both the small and big screen, and their charming brand of British humour pervades this latest effort. The whole thing is gloriously silly and surreal. Running jokes, such as the Pirate Captain's crew being known by descriptions of themselves (my favourite example being Pirate Who Likes Sunsets And Kittens), and their obsession with ham (the best thing about being a pirate, apparently), are never explained and all the funnier for it. The humour drives things along, making the whole film a joy; there's more than enough to keep the adults heartily amused, with historical and cinematic references to the likes of Jane Austen (anachronistic, but still funny) and Joseph Merrick (spot on), in a similar style to the best work of animation gods Pixar. The lengthy process of stop-motion animation in which Aardman have chosen to beautifully realise their film complements the tone of the script brilliantly and gives the whole thing a warmth and sheen that only a labour of love can accomplish.
The film would undoubtedly not be the success it is without the comprehensively excellent voice cast. Hugh Grant's turn as the Pirate Captain is a delight from start to finish, giving him an air of loveable idiocy that is unmistakeably British. Tennant's Darwin is understated in comparison, but is just as enjoyable and shows his expert skill at comic performance, allowed now and then to come to the surface in his most famous role as The Tenth Doctor in Doctor Who but fully utilised here. The supporting cast has talent to spare with the likes of Brendan Gleeson, Martin Freeman and Imelda Staunton putting in mirthful turns, as well as Lenny Henry, Salma Hayek and Brian Blessed making welcome cameos.
The Pirates! does have flaws: the plot feels like it's a little overstretched even for the relatively slight running time of just under an hour and a half, with sections in the middle lacking direction and a final act reveal that feels a bit too tacked on to be truly satisfying. It could also be argued that, for a film focused primarily on pirates, there isn't as much swashbuckling and cutlass-swinging to be seen as you'd expect. But the things that the film gets right more than make up for its minor shortcomings. This is intelligent and expertly-crafted film-making with heart and an unashamed dedication to its very British heritage. So sit back, have a slice of ham, and let the tidal wave of silliness wash over you.