"Fire all things that go BANG!"
Aardman Animation Studio made a name for itself in the 1990s with their effortlessly charming Wallace & Gromit stop-motion shorts. When they branched out into feature territory, they played it safe at first, with a W&G feature, but in 2006 they took a leap into computer animation with Flushed Away. Sadly that film is now remembered best as a financial disaster, but it's every bit as good as the rest of the work they did. The main reason for not doing stop-motion on that feature was the large amount of water involved, which did not stop them from creating this year's The Pirates! Band of Misfits, which ends up being a pretty seamless blend of stop-motion and cg animation, while also retaining all of that handmade Aardman charm.
The "band of misfits" at the heart of this picture is a wayward bunch of pirates that don't do a whole lot of pillaging or looting, but know how to make the most of a good "ham night" once a week. Lead by The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), they're a lovable bunch of rogues that aren't at the top of their pirating game, but are most certainly a family. When The Captain gets wind that they're accepting entries for this year's "Pirate of the Year" award, he sets sail for Blood Island to throw his name in the hat, yet finds himself mercilessly mocked by the more savage pirates in attendance.
Looking to make his name, The Captain and his crew take ship after ship to no avail, finally seeming to strike gold when they happen upon a scientific vessel called The Beagle, which is home to one Charles Darwin (David Tennant). When Darwin realizes that The Captain's parrot is not in fact a parrot, but a rare, extinct dodo bird, he convinces the pirates to accompany him to London for the Scientist of the Year awards to present their findings. This will unfortunately place them right under the nose of the pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), but several plot twists later find The Captain becoming the toast of London.
This seems to be a recurring theme this year at the movies, but the trailers are thoroughly misleading for this film as well. It posits the film as a high seas adventure, but truth be told, not much time is spent on water at all, and the trailers show only material from about the first third of the film. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, just don't be surprised if your little ones aren't enthralled by all the time spent at science fairs and in royal courts. That's not to say it's not for kids, my five year old had a blast, she just remarked on the way out that they didn't really do a whole lot of pirate stuff in the movie.
Aardman has always been interested in circular plotting, where things get set up in act one and paid off by act three, and that's no different here. They're geniuses at laying in subtle humor for the adults, and plenty of colorful characters and action sequences for the kids, and this is much in that vein. The voice cast is fantastic, from the aforementioned cast members, to some of the crew voiced by Martin Freeman, Brendan Gleeson, Anton Yelchin, and a very funny cameo from Brian Blessed as The Pirate King. Grant is a stand-out as always, right in his element as a noodle-spined braggart, talking a big game and ducking out before the heat gets cranked up.
The film is directed by Peter Lord who did all of the W&G films, and he's a master at packing the frame with hilarious details, but keeping things moving so that the film almost demands repeat viewings to pick up on all its nuances. It's a very breezy 88 minutes, that only sags a bit towards the end of Act 2, but picking up again for a high seas showdown with Queen Victoria and a bunch of World Leaders that are up to no good.
The indifference with which the film was greeted here in the US speaks more to the tastes of American audiences than it does the quality of the film itself. This is the kind of film that parents complain aren't being made, yet they don't take their kids to see a good movie when it actually does come along, and that never fails to baffle me. This Spring produced at least two great family films in this and Mirror, Mirror and yet the vastly inferior and over-rated Lorax made a killing at the box office because it was all bright colors and celebrity voices, yet so hollow in its center that it would have made Dr. Seuss ill had he seen it himself. I'll just never understand how certain things become popular.
If you're a parent, you definitely must take your kids, five and older, to see The Pirates! and even if you're not, yet you're a fan of Aardman and its ilk, I would definitely recommend it. It's certainly not the best movie out there right now, but it is better than most of what's playing. I know I'm a little late to the party with this review, as I know it's been out for a bit, but you can still catch it at most multiplexes, and it's even showing up at the discount theaters here in Illinois, so keep your eyes peeled.
PopGO Rating: 3/5
[All pictures via Box Office Mojo]