It’s odd to think that before the 2000s pirates were considered box office poison unless accompanied by felt puppets. But after Johnny Depp put on some eye shadow and busted out that Keith Richards impression he did at parties, pirates turned into one of the most profitable commodities in movie-land. As a general rule, it’s always best to look at movies with that sort of trendy subject matter with a healthy amount of skepticism. However, The Pirates: Band Of Misfits needn’t be approached with such trepidations. This is the latest stop-motion feature from those plasticine geniuses at Aardman Animations, who previously gave us the Wallace and Gromit series and Chicken Run. Those lovable British chaps have a knack for producing hilariously sharp animated features that are just as likely to tickle grown up children as, you know, actual children. Five years in the making, this is probably the largest scale stop motion production Aardman has attempted to date and after the mild disappointment of their two CGI efforts (Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas), something of a return to form for the studio.
This equally intelligently crafted and gloriously silly project came from a series novels by Gideon Dafoe, whose work is known for straddling the delicate smart/silly line. Hugh Grant stars (well, in animated form) as the genial, yet useless Captain Pirate. He’s spent years swashbuckling his way through the seas and amassed a loyal crew of dingbats, deadbeats, morons, and one particularly curvaceous pirate with a high voice and a strangely fake looking beard. They’re a ragtag bunch at best and rarely succeed at anything beyond getting into trouble. However, this year the Captain Pirate has decided to go for the ‘Pirate of the Year’ award handed out for to pirate who amasses the biggest booty. He’s not very good at it, though, and after a series of failed adventures ends up accidentally stumbling onto Charles Darwin’s ship. While the love-starved scientist has no booty to offer, Darwin (voiced by Dr. Who’s David Tennant) does notice that Captain Pirate’s strange looking shoulder bird is a dodo, not a parrot. There’s money to be made from scientists for discovering a seemingly extinct bird, so the pirates decide to pursue that venue to get their gold. Confusion, slapstick, and wordplay galore inevitably follow.
This is British comedy at its silliest and gloriously executed. Dafoe cranked out the joke-packed script himself with the animation team led by director and Aardman-founder Peter Lord packing in more visual gags than should legally be allowed on a single screen. The film moves at such a brisk pace with so many wonderfully ridiculous asides that children are sure to laugh hysterically throughout. It would be a mistake to let this pirate romp play purely for kiddies, though, as that’s certainly not the only crowd Aardman designs their comedy for. We’re talking about a movie in which one of the biggest laughs involves Jane Austin abusing the Elephant Man. While there might be a particularly literate 5 year old out there somewhere who will enjoy that gag, I’ve got a feeling it’s mainly for a different crowd.
Like Pixar, the good folks at Aardman strive for nothing more than unabashed and sneakily intelligent entertainment that plays for all ages. Even if you’re not someone particularly enamored with pirate-related slapstick, the technical craftsmanship alone is worth the price of admission. It’ll take multiple viewings to pick out all the characters, jokes, and sets the crew of animators crammed into Pirates. This thing has the scale of a CGI adventure, yet it was almost exclusively created with good old-fashioned puppetry. The five years spent on production weren’t wasted and for animation nuts, this thing offers glorious eye-candy a-plenty. Throw in a voice cast led by Grant, Tennant, Jeremy Piven, Brendan Gleeson, Martin Freeman, and Britain’s greatest baritone theatrical voice Brian Blessed and you’ve got a cavalcade of talent crammed into a trim 88 minutes.
It’s also worth noting that the movie was shot in 3D and I suppose it shows off the depth of the sets fairly well. However, aside from the occasional shot of a pirate swinging towards the camera, the plastic glasses add very little to the experience. So if you don’t feel like shelling out double the ticket price, it doesn’t really make much of a difference how many dimensions you decide to view this movie in. Just see it and while you’re at it, go ahead and have one hell of a good time. The Pirates: Band of Misfits is a giddy sugar rush of British animation entertainment.