America’s movie buffs have had a love affair with Aardman Animations — creators of The Pirates! Band of Misfits — for years. The American general public, on the other hand … well, not so much.
The beloved, Oscar-winning Wallace & Gromit shorts of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s showcased a studio with wit and cinematic sensibility that one would expect to translate into mainstream success.
Aardman’s gotten its shots over the last dozen years.
As feature animation became one of the surest bets in a cinematic landscape where there were never sure bets, though, Aardman’s efforts have lagged at the box office. In 2005, the charming Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit grossed only $56 million in a year where the first Madagascar landed $193 million and even the forgettable Disney Chicken Little hit $135 million. The most successful Aardman feature — 2000’s Chicken Run, with $106.8 million — couldn’t even reach the $137.7 million of the Disney CGI flick Dinosaur, which I dare anyone to remember now if they tried.
So why has Aardman had to fight such an uphill battle to get folks out to see clever, rollicking tales like The Pirates? There’s nothing off-putting about the premise, which finds a generically named Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) in 1837 trying to win the “Pirate of the Year” award that has long eluded him. Unfortunately, he and his crew are generally better at blundering than plundering, to the point that they assault a scientific vessel called the Beagle looking for loot but only find Charles Darwin.
Darwin (David Tennant) realizes that the Pirate Captain’s “parrot” is in fact something else — something that could mean scientific fame, or perhaps treasure from Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) that would give the Pirate Captain an edge in the all-important “booty” category.
Director Peter Lord has as sure a hand with action set pieces as any live-action director working, providing the kind of exuberant entertainment that appeals across ages. One chase finds the pirates, one by one, becoming unwilling passengers in a runaway bathtub hurtling down a stairway. Later, the combination of a sinking ship and a dirigible create a wonderfully perilous finale. Lord understands precisely how to pace an adventure in a way that keeps energy and interest high, even for kids who don’t get every joke.
And the jokes are plentiful and wonderful, sneaky-smart in their execution right from the outset, like the “London 1837” caption that appears shortly before the guy who held it up sheepishly tries to stay out of frame. Screenwriter Gideon Defoe — adapting his own book — crafts detailed bits of sub-culture, from the pirates’ favored Blood Island hangout to the nerdy denizens of the Royal Society of Science (motto: “Playing God since ...”).
Lord and Defoe also wring plenty of punchlines out of Darwin’s chimpanzee companion Bobo, who communicates using pre-printed cards, as well as the almost innocent devotion of the Pirate Captain’s crew to their leader and his providing a regular “Ham Night.”
The meta-textual gags — like tossing red spots into the water to mark the trail of the ship across the map — do occasionally threaten to steer The Pirates! off course, but the film never opts to live in that hipper-than-thou place.
This is as smart and fun as any animation you’ll see this year. Certainly as good as any from last year.
Family movie audiences claim they want quality. So here it is. The movie nerds among us will be more than happy to have some company.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Directed by Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt
Voices of Hugh Grant, Imelda Staunton