Any film that has felt the soft, plasticine moulding touch of Nick Park's nifty fingers gives me a quasi-illicit thrill of excitement. Call me a debauched plasticine deviant if you will, but from Wallace's wrong trousers, to Mrs Tweedy's chicken pies, a lolloping great Were-Rabbit and even CGI Christmas fiddlings, Aardman never fail to make films that sparkle with good, clean fun.
With a brand of comedy that could be a younger sibling to the Monty Python boys, and a talent for entertaining the adult quota of the audience with gags that soar over the heads of the young and innocent, I expect to exit the cinema with nothing less than a glowing report card and an aching diaphragm aprés Aardman.
The bar was, therefore, set perilously high for Aardman's latest swashbuckling adventure on the high plasticine seas: The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists (a film title so gratuitously punctuated and indulgently drawn out that the younger members of the audience and Wayne Rooney may have difficulty keeping with it to the end).
The Pirates!, as it shall henceforth be known (otherwise your eyes will be hop skip and jumping over every arduously lengthy title reference, and I may contract repetitive strain disorder) is a rollicking adventure on the high seas, harking back to when Pirates were cool and not a little glamorous, instead of genuinely rather frightening kidnappers off the coast of Somalia.
Our bumbling hero is the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) who, along with his motley crew of pirating novices, is determined to win the coveted 'Pirate of the Year' award- a sort of Pirate Oscars, if you will. The award is bestowed upon the Pirate with the most booty- and no, you young, hip kids, this does not mean that if Pirate Captain can shake his jelly better than Beyoncé on a tumble dryer he's the winner- we're talking good old fashioned doubloons and pieces of eight. Unfortunately for Pirate Captain, he's the worst pirate to sail the seven seas since Rizzo the Rat boarded the good ship Muppet for a Treasure Island themed adventure.
There is, luckily, hope yet for Pirate Captain and Co, as they bump into a young, scheming, and slightly sexually perverse Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who carts them all off to London's science fair to find fame and riches via a slightly alternative method. To give away any more would spoil the twists, turns and jolly good swashbuckling fun, but suffice it to say, they run into a whole lot of trouble- largely in the portly form of a (un)lean, mean, pirate sluicing machine by the name of Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton).
The Pirates! Is every pre-adolescent boy's celluloid wet dream: Pirates? Check. Wacky science? Check. No women unless they're wearing a fake beard or fat and funny? Check. It's even got a monkey butler, and frankly, if you're under the age of 14 and don't find a monkey butler pant-wettingly funny you may as well end it now, as nobody's going to like you, not even your own Mother.
What it doesn't have, which every other Aardman film has carried off with such dazzling panache, is thick-and-fast laughs for those of us who have long since waved bye-bye to witch hazel sticks and classroom Bunsen burners. A visual gag involving a Shetland pony was the only time my LOL muscles got a work out, and unfortunately, although I was aware that some finer visual details, like a list of 'ship rules' lingering in the background, were probably hysterical, the utterly inane and transparently gratuitous decision to make The Pirates! in 3D meant that my little eyes nearly popped out of their sockets trying to see anything other than the basics, plus an occasional unwanted protrusion.
A talented cast give a valiant effort in making up for a disappointing gag-rate, however. Imelda Staunton is spot-on as always, delivering a tyrannical, somewhat unhinged performance. The ever-reliable Russell Tovey takes a break from voicing low-brow BBC documentaries to play the archetypal dunce, and Ashley Jensen turns in an excellent performance as a bearded lady pirate. Brian Blessed even makes a cameo appearance as the Pirate King, although whether this is a blessing or curse is a matter of opinion.
This is Hugh Grant's first folly into voice work, as the Pirate Captain with (as we are constantly reminded) the most luxuriant beard. But you cannot rely on facial luxuriance and foppish charm alone, as Mr Grant well knows - you often have to keep people interested with hookers and love children too. Unfortunately for Hugh, the Pirate Captain has neither of these handy helpers, and his well-intentioned efforts remain, like most of Grant's efforts, rather two-dimensional.
The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists is jolly jaunt down memory lane, to a time when pirates didn't need to have all the charming attributes of Ozzy Osbourne, and Keira Knightley's pout didn't take up half the screen. It's a corker for the kids, and never tedious for the adults, but it my report card still reads 'Could do better'.