Aardman Animations, the absurdly talented British stop-motion outfit, has had a heckuva time trying to storm America, and unfairly so. After Flushed Away and their Wallace and Gromit long player Curse of the Were-Rabbit underperformed, they lost their contract with Dreamworks, who, to be honest, didn’t deserve them. (They’re now shacked up with Sony.) The solution? Pirates! Pirates are popular! Were vampires too difficult to animate?
Reservations, alas, quickly fade, as it becomes apparent that The Pirates! Band of Misfits—whose sub-name for America was changed from “In An Adventure With Scientists”—falls in line with Aardman’s other feature lengthers. It lacks the crazed compressed creativity of their shorts but is nevertheless creative and wonderful indeed. (I’ll take Chicken Run and the lot over at least half the Pixar catalogue.)
Hugh Grant is expectedly delightful voicing a pirate captain named, simply, “The Pirate Captain,” who’s merrily oblivious to everything except his low rep among colleagues. Luckily he happens upon the HMS Beagle and one Charles Darwin (David Tennant), depicted here as a sexless dweeb. (Whatever. Be glad there’s a children’s film with Charles Darwin.) When the future celeb naturalist points out the ship’s house bird is likely the only surviving dodo, the Pirate Captain assumes riches from the scientific community await—one of the film’s better gags.
Pirates! is no instant classic. It’s too beholden to convention, although as with previous Aardmans you get the sense that no one involved cared about the sops to mainstream audiences: the homilies, the life lessons, the traditional second-to-third act mope-montage, here set to the Flight of the Conchords’ mock-sad “I’m Not Crying,” to give you an idea of the creators’ sincerity. They care only about design—those large, gappy British teeth!—and tossed-off, couldn’t-resist jokes. No one today can top them for sight gags: half the fun of Aardman is poring over the sets for bad puns (e.g., a seaside shop called “Napoleon Blownapart”).
The plotting is evenly split between the conventional and the loopy: the villain is no less than Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), while the requisite OTT climax revolves around the globe’s aristocracy meeting to feast upon rare animal dishes, including “Panda Face Fritters.” Jokes like that make any amount of annoying concessions worth it, so long as Aardman periodically gets to precipitously raise the multiplex animation bar.