I’m a sucker for Aardman Animations’ films, and have been ever since I first set eyes on Nick Park’s unforgettable short Creature Comforts more than twenty years ago. The Pirates! Band of Misfits, directed by the studio’s co-founder Peter Lord, has the same qualities that always make their work so appealing: a distinctly British sense of humor, and amusing character designs—in clay.
While even the folks at Aardman have embraced computer technology as a filmmaking tool, there is something uniquely appealing about sculpted clay figures like the Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) and his self-described “luxuriant beard.” Audiences naturally respond to the characters, situations, and gags in any animated cartoon, but the look of the film is one of its strongest assets, and wins us over right away.
Story development in Gideon Defoe’s screenplay is not this movie’s strongest suit; silliness is. As we meet the proud Pirate Captain and his eccentric crew, we realize that the so-called hero of the film is something of a nitwit, albeit a likable one. His odd-looking mates are loyal to a fault and support him as he enters the Pirate of the Year contest, even though he always loses. It turns out that the real “winner” in their midst is the Captain’s “parrot” Polly, whom none other than Charles Darwin identifies as a dodo bird. That makes her very desirable, not only to the fabled scientist but to none other than Queen Victoria herself.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits elicited hearty laughs from many audience members—especially grownups—the night I saw it. I found myself smiling and chuckling more than laughing out loud, but I have no complaint about a film that offers wit, imagination, and sheer nonsense in equal measure. Many of the gags will sail over children’s heads, but I think the non-stop action and overall good cheer will please them. Adults will enjoy the voice work by Grant and a fine supporting cast led by Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton (as Queen Victoria), David Tennant, Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, Lenny Henry, Brian Blessed, Anton Yelchin, and Brendan Gleeson. Anglophiles will appreciate them all the more.
Pixar may be stronger on story development, and DreamWorks funnier in terms of verbal gags, but Aardman’s films have their own personality, and I hope they never abandon it.