Ahoy! Another fun clay creation
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Apr. 27, 2012
Don't let the title fool you. "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" is not set on the high seas, and its central characters are pirates in name only.
That last part, in this case, is literally true. The charmingly goofy animated feature - a welcome return by Aardman Animations to its signature clay-animation style - features characters known only as the Pirate Captain, the Pirate with Gout, the Albino Pirate, etc. Aside from wearing tricorn hats and other accoutrements of the buccaneer lifestyle, this motley crew might as well be any old 19th-century street gang with a galleon. The day-to-day business of pirating - plundering, running people through - they're not so good at.
This is why their chances of winning the Pirate of the Year award do not look great.
Adapted by writer Gideon Defoe from his series of children's books, "The Pirates!" is built around the premise of a reality-TV-style contest between the Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) and three other blackguards: Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) and Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry).
But after that somewhat sluggish setup, the movie quickly - and giddily - sets sail for even wackier waters. In his search for ships filled with booty, the Pirate Captain accidentally sacks the HMS Beagle, the famous research ship of naturalist Charles Darwin (David Tennant), leading to a more landlocked, and delightfully ludicrous, adventure.
When Darwin learns that the Pirate Captain's pet parrot, Polly, is actually the last surviving dodo - the presumedly extinct, flightless bird of legend - Darwin connives to bring the animal, along with the pirate crew, to London in order to impress his would-be girlfriend, Queen Victoria, a.k.a. Vicki (Imelda Staunton). This sets in motion a crazed adventure that mashes up Victorian science with modern-day eco-activism and other assorted nonsense. Joseph Merrick as the Elephant Man, for instance, makes a brief cameo appearance, as does writer Jane Austen.
Bizarrely enough, they seem to be a romantic couple.
Like many Aardman films, "The Pirates!" is awash with silliness. There are far more fleeting visual jokes than one can possibly digest in a single viewing. It makes for an experience that, while geared toward younger, more fidgety audiences, has enough humor to keep Mom and Dad from falling asleep.
Sophisticated, however, it is not.
As with Aardman's "Wallace and Gromit" films, there's a sardonic animal sidekick. No, not Polly. It's Bobo, the chimp manservant of Darwin, who like Gromit the dog offers unspoken running commentary on the action of the film with a series of printed cards that allow him to give voice to his innermost thoughts. Sadly, he's no Gromit, who was able to speak volumes with little more than a raised canine eyebrow.
Perhaps, by the second "Pirates!" film, there will be a character as beloved as Gromit. (Yes, there's already talk of a sequel.) In the meantime, "The Pirates!" has made a buoyant maiden voyage.
Contains mild cartoon action and some rude humor.