Like Disney-Pixar, the folks at Aardman know family-friendly comedy. The British stop-action animation company won an Oscar in 2005 for Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, a hilarious adventure yarn, and 2000’s Chicken Run wasn’t too shabby either. Aardman’s latest, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, is billed as the company’s most ambitious project to date and is a complete smash, especially comically.
Directed by Aardman co-founder Peter Lord, Band of Misfits is based on first-time screenwriter Gideon Defoe’s uproarious series of novels, The Pirates!, and manages to live up to them, with only one major exception: a protracted chase scene in Charles Darwin’s Victorian mansion involving a bathtub, an intelligent but speechless monkey traveling with a dodo bird, and one of those grim, elongated stone heads from Easter Island. Like the books, the movie, obviously, generates laughs from a kind of smart silliness and from the lovable hero, the Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant), a luxuriantly bearded buccaneer who is 75 percent charm, 24 percent charisma, and 1 percent brains. Still, he manages to earn the devotion of his crew: the Pirate with a Scarf (voiced by Martin Freeman), the voice of reason; the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (voiced by Ashley Jensen), who’s really a young blonde lass in a horrible fake orange beard; the enthusiastic but dimwitted Pirate with Gout (voiced by Brendan Gleeson); and the childlike Albino Pirate, among others.
And like the books, the movie also relies on a little quirky satire. The imagined late-1800s piratical community here has a capital of sorts, Blood Island, and a leader, the Pirate King (voiced by Brian Blessed), a gigantic, gold-crowned and black-bearded and -coifed character decked out in a white sequined jumpsuit a la Elvis circa Aloha from Hawaii who makes all of his entrances from a descending clamshell. And while he doesn’t get much screen time, he has a pivotal role. He’s responsible for handing out the Pirate of the Year Award, a prize voted upon by the pirate community and eagerly sought by all of them, particularly the Pirate Captain, the deadly and beautiful Cutlass Liz (voiced by Salma Hayek), the Caribbean cove Peg-Leg Hastings (voiced by Lenny Henry), and perennial winner Black Bellamy (voiced by Jeremy Piven), who seemingly lives to bedevil the Pirate Captain. When the Pirate Captain and his crew visit the Blood Island saloon The Barnacle’s Face so he can throw his tricorn hat into the ring, they have to endure a few grand entrances –– Black Bellamy surfs on a wave of gold doubloons from the mouth of a giant white whale propelled into the air from the bay and thrust through the saloon’s front doors.
But while out one day unsuccessfully pirating –– not much booty on a ship of lepers and another of schoolchildren –– the Pirate Captain swoops down on the S.S. Beagle. A young Darwin (voiced by David Tennant) is scribbling in his journal about his bad luck with the ladies as cannonballs whiz and bang all around his belowdecks office. He’s roused from his dreary reverie by the sight of Polly, the Pirate Captain’s “parrot” –– the bird is more than likely the last remaining dodo on the planet. Much like the Pirate Captain’s lust for the Pirate of the Year Award, Darwin desperately longs to win the Scientist of the Year Award, handed out in London, and to that end the young evolutionary theorist goes about scamming to get the Pirate Captain to hand over the bird.
Darwin is also motivated by Queen Victoria (voiced by Imelda Staunton), a pudgy but surprisingly quite nimble (and lethal) viper who absolutely loathes pirates. She has her own plans for Polly, plans neither scientific nor humane, and the lovestruck Darwin will do just about anything to please her, including hoodwink the Pirate Captain.
The action throughout moves at a pretty brisk clip, back and forth between land and sea and from the party town that is Blood Island to the misty streets of Victorian London, and the animation reaches a pinnacle of adorableness. The best bits are the ones in which a character has to offer up that completely unconvincing grin of confidence, all raised eyebrows, bugged-out eyes, and giant teeth. The movie is also loaded with small but significant gags –– one of the first things the Pirate King does when he comes onstage during the awards ceremony is pull out a hot-water balloon and blow into it until it explodes (so macho), and if there’s anyone to thank for the theory of evolution, look no further than the Pirate Captain.
As great as Wallace and Gromit are, The Pirates! books somehow seem even more apt for the Aardman treatment. The language is as soft and fuzzy as the animation. A lot of great quotes from the book make it to the screen, no doubt courtesy of author Defoe’s role. At one point in a London tavern, we catch the Pirate Captain expounding to his guests, “…and that’s why, in a straight fight, I think a shark would most likely defeat a Dracula.” Author/screenwriter Defoe’s wry sensibility is all over dialogue and action, a huge plus in a hugely funny film.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Voices by Hugh Grant and Salma Hayek. Directed by Peter Lord. Written by Gideon Defoe, based on his series on books. Rated G.