In sheer charm and wit, an animated film can leave your spirits elevated and revelling in the splendid detail on display. Aardman Animations definitely marches to the beat of their own drum and with so many films are bursting with CG animation, they still specialize in stop-motion films with their own brand of humor. The Pirates! Band of Misfits is their latest gem and they stick with a tone and act like nothing could be better throughout. Sight gags, witty remarks, and moments that make you want to watch it again and again. These are signs of films that are endlessly watchable because so much is going on, and despite the limited scale and scope possible in stop-motion, Pirates never seems to run into the imaginary borders it plays within.
Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) wants nothing more than to win the “Pirate of the Year” award. Unfortunately, he faces stiff competition from Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) and Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) while also having to admit that he isn’t much of a swashbuckler nor a thief. Sure he plunders booty, but his is minuscule compared to the riches Liz and Bellamy haul in every year. But that all changes when he sets off with his crew to strike it rich and runs into Charles Darwin (David Tennant). While it is a disappointment because Darwin has no riches to offer, he notices that Pirate Captain’s peculiar bird named Polly is actually the last remaining dodo. Darwin convinces Pirate Captain that while his crush, Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), hates pirates with every cell in her body, the annual “Scientist of the Year” award in England will land Pirate Captain untold riches. So, they set off to both get what they want, but you know it won’t end up quite so neat.
The film is based on a series of books by Gideon Defoe, who also wrote the script. This keeps the humor and whimsy very much within its own universe. Yet the gorgeous claymation lives little doubt about who is behind the film. Even the 3D manages to be impressive, as having something with actual depth certainly helps when you can easily play with those constraints. The colors, in particular, manage to be bright and vivid even with the 3D glasses, which just goes to show how much Aardman is paying attention to the cinematic world they work in.
While the story gives Pirate Captain a proper arc, most of the characters around him are one-dimensional. Then there is Darwin and Queen Victoria who are clearly out to get something and aren’t afraid to go out of their way to achieve their aim. They are great antagonists and help round out the story that is filled with thrills. Aardman never let the fact that they have to render every single frame with subtle adjustments of their puppets keep them from going above and beyond when it comes to action. A huge set piece occurs in Darwin’s home in London in which the pirates try to keep a thief from stealing Polly before the big day. What starts as one person sliding down the stairs in a bathtub quickly snowballs as it wreaks havoc on the house, breaking all manner of things.
By the end of it you might have to pinch yourself to remember that the sequence was done in stop-motion. There are so many little details throughout that everything feels like a living, breathing world. Things are constantly occurring in and around the center of the screen, and it definitely rewards a viewer with a sharp eye. As for whimsy, one need look no further than Darwin’s assistant, a monkey that uses flashcards to speak and walks upright. He even comes complete with a bowler hat and monocle. He is a constant source of amusements as he spells out the obvious more subtle things as well. Whether from the mind of director Peter Lord and crew or from Defoe it is unclear, but it works again and again.
Aardman manage to really keep the humor sharp, witty, and full of fun. Kids will be able to follow along quite easily while there is plenty of larger humor at work that will hit with the adults. One gag in particular is Darwin constantly on the tip of discovering that missing link between primate and man. And I have to give bonus point to any film that puts in a Flight of the Conchords song, let alone use it perfectly like they do here. Pirates is full of light-hearted laughs and a story that is truthful and easy to digest. Lessons of greed and pride are contained within, but above all the film is a pure pleasure to watch. Gorgeous, rich animation and zany characters add to a smile-inducing adventure you might want to talk your kids into seeing again. And if you don’t have kids of your own, feel no shame in going as the film never panders to old or young. Perhaps it could use some really hardy laughs, but this is family entertainment done right.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits is now in wide release.