In John Ortved's unauthorized oral history of "The Simpsons," he recounts how an edict was posted in the writers' room of the influential animated series. This had come down from on high, and was probably hard to follow for some of the zanier writers (Conan O'Brien, we're looking in your direction). The note said, simply: "One joke per joke." Clearly this is not something that the good folks at Aardman Animation, the Bristol, England-based animation studio behind "Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" and last year's "Arthur Christmas" follow, because their new film, "Pirates! Band of Misfits," crams in so many jokes – visual, verbal, and otherwise – that you sometimes feel like yelling at the projectionist: "Could you pause that? Or at least slow it down?"
Based on a series of children's books by Gideon Defoe (he also wrote the screenplay), the film concerns a band of wacky pirates with names like The Pirate with the Scarf (Martin Freeman), The Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), and The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen) who are led by the pirate captain named Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant). Pirate Captain is obsessed with winning the coveted Pirate of the Year Award, but isn't nearly as fearsome as his competition – namely Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek, just a few months after her rib-tickling turn in "Puss in Boots") – and he doesn't have nearly enough booty to even qualify.
Things take a turn for the wacky when they run into a young Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who understands that Pirate Captain's chubby "parrot" Polly is actually a living, breathing dodo bird. Certain he can win a scientists exhibition with the dodo, he tries to trick the pirates out of their beloved pet (and a whole lot of money). So the pirates pretend to be scientists, so they can win the science prize and (eventually) the pirates award. There's just that little matter of fervently anti-pirate Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), who also desires Polly for her exotic zoo.
If that makes it sound like there is a lot going on in "Pirates! Band of Misfits" (originally "Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists" in its native England – more on that in a minute), that's because there is – the general energy of the film is off-the-walls wackiness, full of crazy characters (both in personality and design) and sight gags that pile on top of one another until you almost feel like you're going to drown in them. This is the first Aardman stop motion film that is being released in 3D and the extra dimensionality lends an even more tactile quality to the images – you can feel them moving within the frame, as opposed to the entirely synthetic world of computer generated images. In short – it's a veritable visual feast, one that will undoubtedly require multiple viewings to fully decode.
And if there's one thing that you can harp on about with "Pirates! Band of Misfits" it's that it's so funny and so visually enthralling that it often doesn't make much of an effort to be all that emotionally engaging. Not everything has to be the wordless prologue to "Up," but it is nice when the on-screen splendor is matched by something just as deeply felt. There's a nice moral center to 'Pirates,' about the importance of friendship, but it's pretty superficial, and you can't help but wish that the Aardman geniuses had paused for a few more seconds on building that amazing pirate island and worried about making the audience do something besides giggle wildly. Director Peter Lord, co-founder of the company and a man just as responsible for the studio's signature look and sensibility, doesn't command action set pieces like 'Wallace and Gromit' helmer Nick Park or his animation contemporary Brad Bird. Often times the chase sequences seem simplistic and lacking in conflict, and a baffling decision is made towards the end of the film to leave out a pack of wild animals from the calamitous climax. Lord is an elegant and succinct storyteller, which makes this shortcoming sting even more.
It should also be noted that, despite Peter Lord's insistence that Sony didn't try to dampen the movie's Britishness (and, indeed, it is tea-and-crumpets-y English), there was at least one change that we noticed from footage that was screened for us back in February and what we saw in the final film. At a scientists' conference, one scientist, talking up the virtues of a dirigible, said originally, "You get to look down ladies' tops." It got a huge laugh back then and is a really clever, slightly naughty line (especially for a children's film), but in this domestic version, the line has been changed (at not inconsiderable expense) to "Chicks dig balloons." The line doesn't even match the diagram that the scientist is pointing to, which clearly shows someone leaning out of a zeppelin and looking down a busty woman's blouse. You can't help but wonder what else has been altered to make it more tame (and acceptable in America).
Honestly though, these are minor quibbles, especially when the movie is such an embarrassment of visual riches, with each frame containing more jokes and sly gags than entire live action movies. These are pirates who inhabit a very specific, fantastical world, who are less interested in actual high seas villainy than appearing like they are. They're insecure, neurotic, and totally relatable. Lord and co-director Jeff Newitt may have thrown out that 'Simpsons' rule about one joke per joke, but we're all the better for it. [B+]