Ribald fun on the open seas (and in London), with a surprising amount of humor that skews to an older audience, The Pirates! Band of Misfits is easily the best of 2012’s early crop of animated films.
Directed by Peter Lord, who last made Chicken Run for studio Aardman Animation, The Pirates! represents the studios second straight non-Wallace & Gromit success following last year’s Arthur Christmas.
Unlike that previous film, however, which was shot using more conventional CGI animation methods, The Pirates! is a welcome return to the studios’ trademark stop-motion claymation. The filmmakers have a lot of fun with the clay, too, in the animation of water and other motion-intensive substances (including some climactic baking soda & vinegar action).
The Pirates! features a perfectly-cast Hugh Grant as the voice of The Pirate Captain, a 2nd- or even 3rd- tier pirate captain who is nonetheless beloved by his loyal crew, which includes right-hand man The Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman, in a role not dissimilar to his turn as Watson on Sherlock), The Albino Pirate (Russell Tovey, who frequently steals the show with his one-liners), The Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), and others.
The Pirate Captain has his eyes on the Pirate of the Year award, with other captains like Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), and Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) in his way.
After striking out in his attempts at plundering the booty that would guarantee him the prize, a chance encounter with Charles Darwin (David Tennant) gives him a new idea for obtaining gold.
But Darwin, and his trained monkey servant who communicates using cue cards, might have something up his sleeve. And the pirates will have to brave the streets of London, under the watchful eye of pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) to claim their bounty.
With Darwin as a featured player, The Pirates! boasts a number of evolution gags and other humor aimed squarely at an older audience.
Consistently amusing (if never uproariously funny), and refreshingly good-natured, the film is a real delight, playing out the pirate theme to the full hilt. The cast, featuring a lot of familiar voices (Brian Blessed as The Pirate King), is a lot of fun, too.
But the most endearing aspect on display is the wonderful stop-motion animation, Aardman’s first in a feature since 2005’s Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The film looks beautiful, with the work of the animators evident in almost every frame.
3D typically works better in animated films versus live action features, and it works even better with the style of animation employed here: the clay objects are given a natural-feeling added dimension, and the technology is never a distraction.