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Director: Peter Lord
Release Date:
March 28, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★★
Review:

Aardman’s fifth feature film was, after two computer animated films, a welcome return to the stop-motion the studio is most famous for. It had been seven years since their last stop-motion feature film, ‘Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’, and meanwhile the studio had exchanged partnership from Dreamworks to Sony Pictures Animation.

Not that that is visible in ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ (also known as The Pirates! Band of Misfits’), however, as the film is one hundred percent Aardman. More precisely, even though Nick Park was not involved in this project, his recognizable style now had become the trademark general Aardman style, thus ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ explores characters with the same googly eyes and large teeth, if slightly more ‘realistic’ than in the Wallace & Gromit universe.

Unlike Aardman’s earlier features, ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ is not an original story, but an adaptation of a children’s novel by British writer Gideon Defoe. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on any differences, but the film certainly is a pretty silly affair, and much of it must have been present in the original writing.

The film takes place in some fantasy take on the 19th century, and stars several historical figures, like Queen Victoria (here depicted as a furious pirate-hating monarch and the villain of the film), Charles Darwin (depicted as a whiny and cowardly character, longing for a girlfriend, and having an all too intelligent chimpanzee as a butler), and, in a small cameo, Jane Austen (the latter’s inclusion is particularly odd, as she died twenty years before Victoria became queen).

The pirates of the title have more in common with Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta ‘Pirates of Penzance’ (1879)* than with the real thing and are depicted with all the present day cliches imaginable. They’re all dressed in 17th century fashion, belying the 19th century setting, there are wooden legs, flags with skulls, several ‘arrrr’s etc. The modern take on this time period in emphasized by a soundtrack of modern British pop music featuring songs by e.g. Tenpole Tudor, The Clash, The Beat and Supergrass. Thus historicity clearly isn’t the film’s main goal.

On the contrary, the film is self-consciously loony, and chock full of gags and pure nonsense. For example, there’s a pirate festival in which one pirate will be awarded ‘pirate of the year’; one of those pirates makes his entrance from the insides of a giant sperm whale landing on the small harbor; queen Victoria’s dress turns out to be a military killing machine, and so on and so forth.

The story tells about ‘The Pirate Captain’ (he nor his crew do carry names), who dreams of winning ‘the pirate of the year’ award, but who’s actually the laughing stock of the pirate community. In one of his puny attempts to loot a ship he meets Charles Darwin (on his voyage on ‘The Beagle’, which in reality also occurred before Queen Victoria was crowned). Darwin takes interest in the Pirate Captain’s parrot Polly, who’s actually a dodo, and persuades the captain to hand her over for science…

‘The Pirate Captain’, excellently voiced by Hugh Grant, is a round character, dim but enthusiastic, incapable but ambitious, and the story’s focus rests on the tension field between his own ambitions and the love for his crew, mostly personified by pirate ‘Number Two’, who acts as the conscience of the ship. The other six crew members are less well-developed, but allow for a lot of laughs, especially ‘Albino Pirate’ and ‘Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate’ (an obvious woman with a false orange beard).

In the end the story is less interesting than the general silly atmosphere and the multitude of gags. In fact, the plot is disappointingly generic, containing the obligate break-up scene in which the ambitions of the main protagonist lead to an alienation of his friends (also present in e.g. ‘Up’ from 2009 and ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2’ from 2013), and an equally generic gravity-defying finale, once again bringing back memories to ‘Up’.

The animation is outstanding throughout, and one quickly forgets it’s all done in laboring stop motion. There’s way too much action, and even a breathtaking chase scene (inside Darwin’s London home) to stand still and marvel at the animation itself – it’s simply too fluent, and seemingly effortless – a testimony of the enormous talent present at the British studio. There’s even some traditional animation, when the Pirates’ voyages are depicted on a map of the world. Likewise, there’s hardly time to gape at the sets, which are magnificent in their elaboration and made with so much love and care that one gets immediately submerged into the pirates’ world. I’ve seen the pirate ship at an Aardman exhibition in Groningen, The Netherlands, and that alone is a prop of 3 meters high(!). The captain’s room, too, was something to marvel at – containing a lot of subtle jokes you’ll hardly notice in the movie – if at all. Look for the captain’s log!

In all, ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ is great fun, brought to you with bravado and a virtuosity that will leave you breathless.

* the whole concept of Pirate King seems to come from this operetta.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Release Date: August 2, 1986
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Laputa Castle in the Sky © Studio GhibliDrawing inspiration from Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, ‘Laputa, Castle in the Sky’ takes Miyazaki’s love for flying machines to the max, introducing a humongous flying island.

Its story is set in a parallel world, which has a genuinely late 19th century European feel, but where flying machines are very common. The strange machines imagined for the film are both wonderful and convincing.

We follow the two orphan children Pazu, a poor mine worker, and Sheeta, who falls from the sky carrying a mysterious amulet, which reveals that she’s a Laputan princess. Followed by the Dola clan, a gang of pirates led by an old pink-haired woman, and by the military led by the enigmatic gentleman Muska, the children seek out to find the flying island.

Unlike other films by Miyazaki, ‘Laputa’ knows a real villain, the ruthless prince Muska. While the children admire Laputa for its nature, and while the pirates and the soldiers are only after its treasures, Muska seeks the island’s destructive possibilities to obtain world power. On the way, the film moves to a grander and grander scale, with a finale on the floating island that shows us dazzling heights, and which doesn’t eschew many killings, making ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ Miyazaki’s most violent movie.

‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ is Studio Ghibli’s very first feature film. It’s akin to the earlier ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind‘ (which predates the studio’s foundation) in its focus on the importance of love and nature and its aversion to short-minded people only interested in power and destruction. Despite its violent finale, ‘Laputa’ is more overtly a film for children than ‘Nausicaä’. Its focus stays with the rather naive children, and it contains more humor, especially in the depiction of the pirates, who are almost used as a comic relief only.

In any sense, ‘Laputa’  is a powerful film: its depiction of an original made-up world is convincing, its animation is outstanding, and its message complex and far from black and white. It once again shows the mastery of Miyazaki and the Ghibli studio.

Watch the trailer for ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: September 10, 1932
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Still from 'King Neptune' featuring several mermaids on a rock

King Neptune is a merry sea giant, who gets angry when a bunch of horny pirates capture one of his topless(!) art deco mermaids. This leads to a war at sea, complete with an aircraft carrier whale and sea creature dive bombers.

‘King Neptune’ introduces a new concept to the Silly Symphonies, that of operetta. No longer the characters act silently to music, now they actually sing in operatic fashion. In the mid-thirties operetta was very popular in Hollywood, and in 1933 the operetta format would spread through the series, and it even shortly invaded Mickey Mouse films, like ‘The Mad Doctor‘, ‘Ye Olden Days‘ and ‘The Mail Pilot‘ (all 1933).

This trend led to curious mini-musicals, like ‘Father Noah’s Ark‘ and ‘The Pied Piper‘ (both 1933). The style reached its apex with ‘The Goddess of Spring’ (1934), in which the singing in all its seriousness became downright ridiculous. The operetta style survived into 1935, after which it disappeared from the Disney cartoons. However, Walt Disney’s first feature, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937), clearly uses the operetta-style, probably because it already had been conceived at the end of 1933.

King Neptune is kind of a stock character. In many ways he’s just Old King Cole from ‘Mother Goose Melodies‘ (1931) in an updated form – rather awkwardly still wearing gloves. This character would resurface as Santa in the next Silly Symphony ‘Santa’s Workshop‘ (1932), as Noah in ‘Father Noah’s Ark‘ (1933), and as King Midas in ‘The Golden Touch’ (1935).

The pirates and mermaids are nowhere near realism, yet they’re designed and animated much better than the hunters in ‘The Fox Hunt‘ (1931), showing that Disney was making fast strides to realistic human designs already at this stage .

‘King Neptune’ is only the second Silly Symphony in color, yet unlike the first, ‘Flowers and Trees‘, it was made with color in mind from the start, and it shows. What a lush, elaborate, colorful and stunningly beautiful short this is! The cartoon simply bursts with color. Nevertheless, at several points the artists were still struggling with the new language of color. For example, one fighting scene on deck is almost rendered in reds only, in another scene the turtles have almost the same color as their background rock, failing to stand out. However, two color Silly Symphonies later, in ‘Santa’s Workshop‘, these problems appeared to have been solved, for that cartoon juxtaposes the most vibrant colors in all its scenes.

Apart from the use of color, ‘King Neptune’ is astounding because of its astonishingly elaborate animation. It’s packed with special effects, and complex and beautiful animation. The opening shots alone, in which King Neptune introduces himself, contain excessive, complex cycles of bubbles and fish. But the short’s highlight is the epic battle, which contains scenes of unprecedented complexity.

More impressive Silly Symphonies were soon to follow, but ‘King Neptune’ itself already is no less than a masterpiece. All previous Silly Symphonies literally pale compared to this one, let alone contemporary cartoons of other studios.

Watch ‘King Neptune’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 30
To the previous Silly Symphony: Flowers and Trees
To the next Silly Symphony: Bugs in Love

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