As the third stop-motion animated feature film from Aardman Animation, The Pirates! Band of Misfits delivers on the promise of the studio’s earlier Wallace & Gromit work in a wholly new backdrop. It features similar humor of course, but also retains the loving attention to detail that rewards repeat viewings for both kids and adults alike.
The titular nameless Pirates are led by their captain, Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) who is really a pirate in name and dress only. His crew is filled out by The Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman), The Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), and The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jenson). The Pirate Captain desperately wants to win the Pirate of the Year award, but is up against fierce competitors Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) and Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven).
Having seen the trailer for the film, I was expecting a fairly straightforward pirate romp, but was surprised when the film took a new and exciting direction at the beginning of the second act. I might not have been as surprised if the film had been released in the US with the original UK title, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists. While sailing for booty, the Pirates end up attempting to pillage and plunder from none other than Charles Darwin (David Tennant) and the HMS Beagle. Darwin, in turn, wants to win a science prize to impress his crush…Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton). Cameos from such figures as Jane Austen and the Elephant Man are also plentiful, and by the end of the film I was enamored by the historical cast of characters.
Much of the joy in this film comes from watching the filmmakers play around in this time period. There is so much great comedy throughout, ranging from puns and sight gags to the elaborate Rube Goldberg-like set pieces Wallace fans have come to expect. A true family film, this will appeal to kids as well as adults. Much of the best humor in the film is specifically targeted to grown-ups (or overly educated youngsters) in the form of references and sly gags, handled much more deftly than in fare like The Lorax.
This is a film rich in detail, and one of the few children’s movies I could probably tolerate watching several times in a week, if only to attempt to weed out the hundreds of potential background jokes, only a few of which I think I caught by the end. While I love all forms of animation, there is something special about stop motion, because these characters and sets (mostly) exist in the real world. It is slow work, and seeing the craftsmanship on display here is worth the price of admission. Whether it is the swirls on Pirate Captain’s luxurious beard, the signs in a London back alley, or the facial expressions of a monkey butler, there is always something amazing to look at.
Pirates! Band of Misfits is much more than just your average family fare, and well worth seeking out if you’re the kind of adult who might enjoy an absurdist pirate’s eye view on history.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits opens in Philly-area theaters today.