In a recent interview promoting the release of The Muppets, Jason Segal pointed out the difference between CGI and the real world. “You could touch Kermit; he exists in our world. You could potentially meet Kermit. But you’ll never meet Shrek; he lives in a computer”.
The inability to comprehend this is what doomed Aardman Animations’ 2006 film Flushed Away, their first flop. Flushed Away’s character designs were created in the same style as Wallace, Gromit, or any number of electricity-promoting animals, but somehow it just didn’t feel the same. There was one key difference: its characters didn’t really exist.
Aardman failed to understand that the appeal of their films wasn’t just their character design or their distinctly British comedic sensibility, but also the comfort engendered by their tangible, Plasticine world. It isn’t that Wallace is endearingly befuddled and Gromit is endearingly put-upon, but that they’re actually there; if you look carefully you can see the thumbprints of their creators. Regardless of whether the pair were present in your childhood or not, they speak to it. Aardman’s work is fundamentally nostalgic, which is why it can only properly work if it’s rendered through stop-motion. It isn’t meant to be cutting edge, or modern, or in any way fashionable.
Thankfully, massive financial failure taught Aardman the error of its ways, and the result is The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! The film feels like it could have been made at any time in Aardman’s history, and that’s the point. While it leans on its plot a little too hard when it should be content to just spend time with its wonderfully silly characters, it’s still a spirited, bright, lovely film. Like all of Aardman’s best work, The Pirates! is unafraid to be itself, however largehearted or harebrained that may be.
Watching the film, you feel the desire for it to be successful because it absolutely deserves to. Even if you wish it could be just a little bit better (and feature a little less Charles Darwin), there is something very comforting about the fact that it was made and exists and is something that you can see in a cinema, thumbprints and all.