Set sail for adventure on the high seas with the merriest band of buccaneers and scallywags this side of the ocean blue with Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt‘s rollicking and very fun family film, The Pirates! Band of Misfits. Arghs ahoy! Based on Gideon Defoe‘s comedic novels, the Aardman Animations film follows the Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) and his merry band of hearties as they attempt to win the coveted Pirate of the Year Award, all while mixing it up with world-famous scientists, the Queen herself, sworn pirate enemies, and even a trained monkey.
Frequently funny and layered with humor to suit all ages, including a gaggle of solid sight gags and verbal jokes aplenty, the film is another feather in Aardman’s (large, triangle-shaped pirate) cap. All that good humor aside, the film occasionally suffers from some missteps translating two of Defoe’s written works into one film, but while the plot might not sail along effortlessly, just about everything else about The Pirates! does.
The good Pirate Captain’s gang is a merry one, a spirited family that includes the dutiful Number Two (Martin Freeman, also known as The Pirate with the Scarf), the chipper Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin), the surprisingly curvaceous Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen), the accident-prone Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), and everyone’s beloved pirate parrot Polly. Together, they might not be the best pirates on the high seas, but they’re certainly the most friendly. When the annual Pirate of the Year Awards roll back around, the Pirate Captain is determined to finally capture the prize, even if everyone thinks he is a loser and he has to go up against truly fearsome pirates like Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek, basically playing the exact same role as from Puss in Boots), and Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry). Set on proving their meddle (and metal, they really need to capture some more booty), the Pirates! go looking for trouble, and boy do they ever find it.
Cobbled together from two of screenwriter Gideon Defoe’s “The Pirates!” novels, the film’s one black mark is a tremendous lack of plot focus. While the film has been billed as detailing the crew’s attempts to win the Pirate of the Year Award, that story quickly gets jumbled up with the rascals setting off on a a trip to London for some high-falutin’ science awards that see them paired up with no less than Charles Darwin (David Tennant). It’s a fun spin on revisionist history, and it’s not likely to confuse any kiddos in the audience, though a few of them may end up with a residual fear of Queen Victoria (who ends up as the primary villain of the entire film).
Before the London plot is sewn up, the pirates are back on pirate stomping ground Blood Island (apparently modeled after Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride, but buckets more fun), before they’re back in London – the plot zinging back and forth between conflicts and evil-doers seemingly without a map. While there are threads between the stories – the pirates find Darwin while searching for booty to impress King Pirate in their quest for the Pirate of the Year Award, their exploits in London eventually help them win pirate acclaim – they’re fragile threads and feel shoe-horned in around everything else.
Fortunately for The Pirates!, the rest of the film is buoyant enough to keep the entire endeavor afloat. Like other Aardman classics, such as recognizable titles from the Wallace & Gromit franchise and Chicken Run, The Pirates! is mostly stop-motion claymation animation (as IMDb notes, computer-generated animation was used for much of the scenery), and the effect of such technical work is consistently beautiful and charming. There’s clearly been a lot of love put into the film, and it shows on the screen. The film is available in both 3D and 2D, and while the other technical merits of the film are outstanding, its third dimension is not necessary for audience enjoyment, it’s simply fun enough as is.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits is a relentlessly amusing and crowd-pleasing trip on the high seas, one that begs for further journeys with this ragtag group of adventurers.
The Upside: Consistently funny, scrappy, and charming, The Pirates! delivers laughs for all ages; gorgeous Aardman animation is as fun and dazzling to watch as ever; memorable voicework from a talented cast.
The Downside: A choppy plot that doesn’t find its aim until far too late in the film.
On the Side: Gideon Defoe adapted the first of of his own two “The Pirates!” novels, “The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists” and “The Pirates! in an Adventure with Whaling,” for the film. Defoe has written four “The Pirates!” novels since 2004, with a fifth hitting shelves this summer.