To the deep chagrin of Errol Flynn fans everywhere, the word “pirates” in movie conversations has become basically synonymous with one multi-billion-dollar franchise, Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean." And with numbers five and six in the successful series still forthcoming, that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
Nevertheless, Aardman Animations, the British studio responsible for “Wallace & Gromit” as well as last year’s seasonal hit “Arthur Christmas,” has boldly hoisted a skull-and-hambone flag in defiance with its delightful new feature, “The Pirates! Band of Misfits.”
Based on a series of children’s books by Gideon Defoe (who also penned the screenplay), “Pirates!” follows the swashbuckling adventures of The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) and his rummy crew of similarly named sea bandits, including The Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman), The Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), The Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin) and The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen).
After decades of failure, The Pirate Captain figures the odds are finally in his favor to win the coveted “Pirate of the Year” award. However, he faces stiff competition from the more showy captains like Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) and Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven). In his determined quest for booty, The Pirate Captain also crosses paths with a young scientist named Charles Darwin (David Tennant), as well as the pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) who has sinister plans for The Pirate Captain’s big-boned “parrot” Polly.
Whatever else can be said about it, “Pirates! Band of Misfits” is a feast for the eyes. The biggest stop-motion film ever attempted by Aardman Animations, it features jaw-droppingly detailed character models and gorgeous environments that seamlessly blend traditional “Claymation” with computer graphics. What’s more, the use of 3-D actually helps for once. Like everything else in the movie, the 3-D is ingeniously filmed at one-sixth scale (cameras placed a half inch apart instead of the normal three inches of normal films shot in 3-D) to create an immersive world that will amaze younger and older audiences alike. Even during the closing credits, there is so much detail that “Pirates!” practically demands repeat viewings to catch everything, especially for animation buffs.
The voice acting is also stellar. Led by the unexpectedly pitch-perfect Hugh Grant (“Notting Hill,” “About a Boy”) as The Pirate Captain, the entire cast gives life to their characters. As a side note for “Lord of the Rings” devotees, Number Two (The Pirate with a Scarf) is played by future Bilbo Baggins Martin Freeman. Arguably the standout character, though, is Darwin’s mute “man-panzee” Bobo, a Gromit-like chimp who communicates using index cards and always seems to be the smartest character in the room.
Audiences should be warned, however: As with Aardman’s previous films, the sense of humor in “Pirates!” is sometimes pretty droll and speaks to a distinctly British sensibility. Because of that, some of the jokes might not play well to all audiences. For fans of “Wallace & Gromit” or British comedy in general, though, there is a lot to laugh about in “Pirates!” The subtle but charming humor is the kind that will have you chuckling for days afterwards.
Certainly, children, too, will enjoy the nautical hijinks, but many of the best bits, including one reference to a certain David Lynch film, rely on some familiarity with Victorian England, prompting one to question if this was really made for kids or the parents that get dragged to the movie theaters with them.
Finally, while mostly ahistorical, “Band of Misfits” is not totally without educational value, especially inasmuch as it presents the opportunity for parents to discuss real historical topics like Darwin and the voyage of the Beagle with their kids afterwards. Just be ready to correct some of the grosser inaccuracies like the final katana swordfight between The Pirate Captain and Queen Victoria.
Because, of course, everyone knows the queen would fight with a rapier.
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.