Nowadays animated movies that are not CG animated are a rarity. While 3D is a new major trend in animation, the CG animation pretty much took over from all other forms of animation around seven years ago. Only a few movies using a different style of animation get a wide release in North America. Maybe that is one of the reasons why Aardman Animation’s newest output, The Pirates! Band of Misfits is so refreshing.
It has been a while now that the British-based Aardman Animations has brought a claymation movie to the big screen with the last being their Oscar-winning film Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. While I have always been a fan of the Wallace & Gromit short films, I wasn’t very fond of the feature film version. It was lovably rendered and amusing enough, but the Wallace & Gromit humor works best in shorts and wasn’t sustained well enough over the length of the theatrical outing. A year after that film, Aardman released their first attempt at CG animation – the criminally underrated Flushed Away. A hit with the critics, the movie unfortunately ended up as a big financial letdown and most likely led to the end of the partnership between DreamWorks and Aardman. After last year’s Christmas-themed (and also CG-animated) Arthur Christmas, Aardman finally returned to what they have become known for – stop motion clay animation. However, in a winning move the studio combined the old with the new and made The Pirates! their first 3D movie.
In this adaptation of the first book in Gideon Defoe’s The Pirates! series the plot revolves around an unnamed hapless Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) and his attempt to win the coveted Pirate of the Year award. However, to rivaling pirates like Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry) and Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Pirate Captain is little more than a joke. Stung by their insults and unwilling to lose the contest yet another year, Pirate Captain and his band of misfits (which include characters like the Albino Pirate, the Pirate with a Scarf, the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate – well you get the drift) are hellbent on plundering enough gold to outdo his competitors. Unfortunately the ships they come across during their raids range from leper boats over a nudist ship to a ghost ship. Just as the self-deluded Pirate Captain is about to give up, his ship stumbles upon Charles Darwin’s HMS Beagle. While there is no gold to be found on board of that vessel either, Darwin (David Tennant) recognizes Pirate Captain’s “fat parrot” Polly as the last living dodo. Pirate Captain quickly hatches a plan to go to London and present the dodo to the Royal Society. As a prize, he foolishly expects unimaginable amounts of gold. The downside of the plan – he and his crew have to venture to London, home of the pirates’ mortal enemy Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton). Let the adventure begin!
The plot sounds delightfully crazy and the film delivers. Peter Lord, who has previously directed Aardman’s claymation hit Chicken Run, hits all the right notes here. The blend of stop motion with CG-backgrounds is seamless and provides for some great visuals. The figures, hand-shaped with great attention to detail and a lot of wonderful imperfections, are very charming to them and the 3D enhances the experience well. There is something really beautiful about this old-fashioned approach meeting the newest trend in filmmaking.
But of course even the greatest visuals wouldn’t make this a good movie if the characters, the story and, most of all the humor, didn’t work. It does, though, giving the audiences one of the best comedies in a while, animated or otherwise. This is a truly anarchistic picture featuring a great lot of madcap ideas that we are used to from Aardman. The anachronisms are aplenty as we get to meet a young and flirtatious Jane Austen (who in real life died before Queen Victoria was even born), the Elephant Man and of course the two aforementioned figures – Queen Victoria and Charles Darwin (who is madly in love with the former). The comical highlight of the film, however, has got to be Darwin’s mute chimp servant, Mr. Bobo – a so-called “manpanzee”. It wears a tailcoat, a monocle and communicates via words on flashcards that he is holding up. The movie plays very well with that idea, having the audiences basically read the film’s funniest gags. The relationship between Mr. Bobo and Darwin is clearly a nod to Aardman’s most popular heroes, Wallace and Gromit.
Yes, lunacy is all around here (watch one for the most amazing bathtub chase scene in cinema history!) and one has to enjoy the particular brand of wry humor and happy insanity to fully enjoy this. It is not quite up to the standards of Aardman’s early works, but it is still loads of unabashed fun that doesn’t need to rely on the currently very popular pop culture jokes or bathroom humor. It is a movie that adults can enjoy every single bit as much as their kids if not even more. Here’s hoping that Aaardman will provide us with a sequel to this as there are still another four books in the series waiting to be adapted.