Good news, everyone: Aardman's second release under the Sony Pictures Animation banner, a return to the stopmotion with which the company first made its name, is - phew - greatly more enjoyable than last year's only patchily inspired Arthur Christmas. The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists! (two exclamation marks; both justified) turns out to owe less to Jack Sparrow than it does to Dodgeball's proposal that pirates - and slightly crap, unconvincing pirates in particular - are a pretty funny idea to be running or rowing with. Better yet: after Arthur's rather bland, computer generated features, it also reclaims plasticine as a medium, and the sense of long hours spent hunched with craft tools over the modelling table that comes with it - not to mention the company's signature blockish teeth, as previously sported by Wallace, Wendolene and TV's David Mitchell.
Perhaps encouraged by George Osborne's Budget-box pledge to keep Aardman in the UK, The Pirates! also suggests a rediscovery of Englishness, opening to the heraldic strains of Ten Pole Tudor's original "Swords of a Thousand Men", and - as with the earlier Flushed Away's defiant deployment of Generation X's "Dancing with Myself" - refusing to sell out with the more obviously commercial One Direction cover version of same. Somewhere close to the centre of the plot, adapted by Gideon Defoe from one of his bestselling children's series, there resides that ever-seaworthy comic standby of English insecurity when confronted with the rest of the world - a gag redoubled in potency by making its chosen Englishmen supposedly fearsome buccaneers.
Hugh Grant, familiar avatar of Englishness, voices the Pirate Captain, pitted against sexier American and Caribbean rivals (Salma Hayek's Cutlass Liz, Jeremy Piven's Black Bellamy) in a quest to win the coveted Pirate of the Year trophy; he's aided by a very motley crew with names like Pirate with Gout, Albino Pirate ("We are rubbish compared to them, aren't we?") and Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (who has to lower her voice to conceal her identity). Also along for the ride is a similarly self-doubting Charles Darwin, voiced by David Tennant, who's spent so long researching the origin of the species that he wonders whether he'll ever get a girlfriend. There's no hiding which side Aardman is on here: the film is subsequently given over to the dunking of biscuits in tea, Grant's Cleese-ish tantrums, and a ribald, very silly sense of humour ("You remember that talk we had - the one about whether or not pigs were fruit?") that at once trumps the festive offering's placid homilies.
Maybe it's overly frenetic in places, just missing the precision timing and slow, sweet character beats of Nick Park's solo projects, but that's the kids' animation market for you these days - and, at any rate, the Peter Lord/Jeff Newitt double-act tweaking the clay here manage wonderful froth, like the plasticine foam dripping off the pirates' flagons of ale, or the final set-piece (surely brought to viewers in association with Cillit Bang) that sees a ship disappearing beneath the waves in a vast, vinegary effervescence. The glorious constant is that comic worldview, filtered through years of music hall, Monty Python, Blackadder and school playground hijinks. In an American animation, an airship would be the vehicle for a horizon-expanding, whole-new-world-exploring flight of fancy; here, it's just a device by which to look down ladies' tops.
The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists! is in cinemas nationwide.