Plasticine pirates wreak havoc on the high seas in a gloriously silly caper from Aardman's Animations. Hugh Grant sets the tone as the voice of the jolly yet bumbling Pirate Captain who couldn't find a box of treasure if he fell over it. As a consequence, he looks at alternative ways to build his reputation.
That's where the scientists come in - and Charles Darwin in particular (a reedy-voiced David Tennant). In keeping with a cheekily revisionist view of history (written by Gideon Dafoe adapting his own children's books), Darwin is a creepy little man who likes pickling animals and he trains his beady eye on the giant parrot perched on the Captain's shoulder. That's because it is, in fact, a dodo.
Darwin seeks the glory of this rare discovery and invites the Captain and his crew to a science competition where there's a big prize up for grabs. Of course Darwin aims to steal the dodo and shake the pirates loose, but the Captain has other ideas; mainly to win the booty and show off the haul to his rival seadogs (including a salty Salma Hayek) and claim the title of Pirate of the Year.
Aardman stalwart Peter Lord co-directs, bringing that trademark homemade feel to the animation as well. But Wallace & Gromit fans will sadly note: these clay models carry no visible fingerprints.
There is a slightly slicker, Hollywood effect (with Sony overseeing production) and the absence of W&G creator Nick Park is also felt in other subtle ways. The attention to detail isn't quite as obsessive; the in-jokes not quite as sophisticated. In its design and conception, the film is more obviously designed to appeal to children, though grownups will surely enjoy the witty banter.
The Captain's crew features Martin Freeman and Ashley Jensen (as a suspiciously feminine pirate...) who deliver their lines with the sort of droll humour you'd expect from former sidekicks of Ricky Gervais. Brendan Gleeson is a natural for the gnarly 'Pirate with Gout' and in the starring role Grant is much more engaging than usual because he plays against type - all wide-eyed bravado and nary a brain cell.
The world of the pirates is as much a character in the story with the action moving at a rate of knots between far-flung islands and a vividly realised 19th century London. It feels familiar and exotic all at once because the filmmakers aren't slaves to realism (as CGI toonists often are). In fact, it's that colourfully skewed vision of ye olde worlde that gives it so much charm. You'll be fully immersed - even without 3D glasses.