“What pirates? There’s nobody here but us…um…Girl Scouts…” – Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant).
A rare stumble from Aardman Animations is still a success other studios would be envious to have. In that regard, The Pirates! Band Of Misfits is a solid, if unremarkable film. From the production house that has given us the classic Wallace & Gromit films and animated shorts over the years and thoroughly entertaining films like Chicken Run, Aardman have trademarked the claymation style of animation and it is impossible to not get swept up in the visual impressiveness and artistry on display in these films. Usually, there is a solid and engaging story behind all the extraordinary animated work making an Aardman film a fantastic experience in virtually every conceivable way. With The Pirates!, we have some winning moments but ultimately a by-the-numbers story that falls flat as often as it succeeds.
Adapted from the first two books in Gideon Defoe’s British children’s series, The Pirates! introduces us to the generically named Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), who has assembled a ragtag group of misfit pirates committed to helping the Pirate Captain finally win the esteemed and coveted Pirate of the Year award. Year after year, his lack of successes make him angrier and angrier, and he has stepped up his efforts to finally outwit and defeat his archenemies Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek)and take home the prize once and for all.
Per the Pirate Captain’s ineptitude, attempts to take over countless ships fail rather spectacularly until they finally achieve success with a ship dubbed The Beagle. Once aboard, the pirates encounter a young Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who has, at his side, a smart and communicative chimpanzee named Mr. Bobo. Darwin also has in his possession what he claims to be the last living dodo bird in the known world. Named Polly (of course), the pirates travel to London to show off the dodo, but their efforts again fall apart when their attempts to hide their identities as scientists is uncovered by a villainous and menacing Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton). The Queen hates pirates and vows to not only eliminate the Pirate Captain’s crew but also to take possession of the rare bird…naturally, for nefarious means.
As an adventure film, The Pirates! is passably entertaining, spiking in dry wit and British-style humor that hits and misses in equal measure. Nothing is ever riotous or uproarious here, save a sequence here and there, and most of the time I, and those around me, sat with a half-cocked smile expecting something bigger and grander to come at any moment. Part of the disappointment with The Pirates! is that it never fully closes the deal, leaving scenes hanging a bit too long and striking a wildly inconsistent tone between the over-the-top Queen and subtle humor found elsewhere.
And yet, the film is a marvel to watch. Expertly made from a technical standpoint, as Aardman films always are, director Peter Lord is something of an unparalleled innovator with this type of work. The voice work is also top notch with all the major characters engaging and exciting to listen to. Hugh Grant is necessarily bombastic as the enigmatic Pirate Captain and although her character is a bit too much to handle from a thematic standpoint, Imelda Staunton nonetheless attacks the Queen with some attention-grabbing vitriol. Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, Martin Freeman, and a few other recognizable voices from Brendan Gleeson, Ashley Jensen, and even Al Roker, make the film entertaining from beginning to end.
And entertaining is perfectly fine. When The Pirates! took their bow and the end credits appeared, I had nothing really bad to say about the film, but was uninspired to overly praise it either. That it looks fantastic and is directed expertly is commendable, if not expected from Aardman Animations productions. Seeing a story that is amusing, but never delivers great and memorable moments (alright…Mr. Bobo’s perfectly timed cue cards nothwithstanding…) from this studio and these filmmakers is admittedly a bit of a letdown.
The Pirates! The Band Of Misfits likely won’t be remembered or watched nearly as much as the Wallace and Gromit films or Chicken Run, or even Flushed Away perhaps. But when you do put eyes in front of it, you will have a perfectly good time with it. Just don’t be surprised if your good time amounts to little more than a shoulder shrug and an “Alright…what are we doing next?” response from you and/or your children.