The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists
Let's face it, the world of Hollywood pirating with its peglegs, eyepatches, shoulder parrots and bounty of other swashbuckling tropes is pretty silly. Even a high seas adventure like Pirates of the Caribbean has the ridiculous Jack Sparrow to help it hobble along. Pushing the comedy can only work in pirate movie's favor, and Aardman Animation's Pirates! A Band of Misfits goes all out, seizing the absurdity with a flare only British sensibilities could conjure. The film is a treasure trove of design and technical wizardry, but for those less interested in the intricacies of stop motion animation, Pirates!'s simple story packs plenty of low-key laughs that viewers all ages can pick up.
The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) is at wit's end. While he's enjoyed his time leading a ragtag group of wannabe pirates, including Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin), Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen) and his number two, Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman), a lifestyle of eating ham and barely making ends meet is losing its luster. ALTWhen Pirate Captain shows up to the annual Pirate of the Year submission day, he's once again outdone by Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), who rides in on a whale full of gold. Driven by competition, Pirate Captain reassembles his crew, hits the open waters and begins a new wave of pillaging. It's all for naught, until the pirates cross paths with Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who identifies Pirate Captain's "parrot" as an extinct dodo bird. Suddenly, the pirates have a new (and lucrative) calling: science.
There's an unexpected intelligence to Pirates!. The movie, based on a children's book of the same name, centers on Pirate Captain's mid-life crisis, delves into the world of 18th century science and pegs Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) as the mastermind bad guy behind the elimination of the pirate occupation. That gives the accompanying adults plenty to chew (and laugh) on, but director Peter Lord doesn't stray away from an ol' fashioned slapstick routine. There's a marvelous stray bathtub sequence halfway through the film, a wild ride through Charles Darwin's old tudor, that's a true spectacle. But even a simple gag involving baking soda and vinegar exploding sud bubbles is expertly crafted and executed by Lord.
The stop motion technique never feels limited in Pirates!, even with a great deal of walking and talking scenes. Gideon Defoe's script is elevated by the vocal performances; Grant is perfectly cast as the faux-burly Pirate Captain, while Martin Freeman's perfected "timid skeptic" routine from The Office and Sherlock is once again on full display. The Aardman team continues to have a knack for gesturing, their puppets uniquely natural and human. Even with all the enormous pirate ships, detailed cityscapes and dazzling action, Pirates! is at its best when it focuses on the sillier, calmer moments.
The tangibility of Pirates! A Band of Misfits comes through in its physical stop-motion animation techniques, but also its genuine heart. There's a rare reality to the storytelling, even at its most fantastical. While the film doesn't hit the same emotional chords as some of Pixar or Dreamworks' best, you would need an X-marked map to find a Hollywood cartoon as sweet and heartfelt. So don't walk the plank on this one board, with kids in tow, immediately.