DVD Release Date: August 28, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: April 27, 2012
Rating: PG (for mild action, rude humor and some language)
Genre: Animation, Family
Run Time: 88 min.
Director: Peter Lord, Jeff Newitt
Cast: Voices of Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, David Tennant, Imelda Staunton, Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, Anton Yelchin, Brendan Gleeson

Pixar’s brand of animation is heartwarming humor/adventure, DreamWorks revels in hyperactive cartoonery, while Blue Sky (Ice Age movies) and Illumination (The Lorax) land somewhere in-between. And then there’s Aardmann which is sort of off in a niche by itself: Claymated Sophisticated Silliness.

After their first successful diversion into CGI with Arthur Christmas—one that also had a softer/warmer tone of humor and heart—Aardmann returns to the quick-witted claymation they’re known for (Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run) with The Pirates! Band of Misfits. In a movie marketplace where even the great animated offerings seem to have some level of mass audience calculation to them, The Pirates! feels like something the Aardman team made strictly for themselves—and it’s refreshing to be in on their feature-length lark, one that’s as skilled as it is carefree.

Yet even with its idiosyncratic style—both comedically and visually—The Pirates! remains an easily consumed treat for the masses. It has a constant energy to it, albeit a different one than Americans are generally accustomed to, fueled by an onslaught of dry cleverness rather than in-your-face antics. The result rarely has you laughing-out-loud, but its PG-level of Python-esque absurdity is entertaining in its own right and on its own terms. 

Absurd though it may be, it’s all anchored in a clearly-structured plot (which goes a long way in making the whole thing as accessible as it is). Set in the swashbuckling world of old, The Pirate Captain—yes, that’s the only name he goes by—leads a band of motley merry men across the high seas. All have the zeal for plundering and pillaging yet lack the knack for it.  

Consequently, the coveted prize of “Pirate Of The Year”—which goes to the buccaneer who clears more loot than any other—has eluded The Pirate Captain for two decades, and made him a laughing stock of the pirating world. So when a fortuitous encounter with scientist Charles Darwin leads The Pirate Captain to discovering that his overly fat parrot is really The World’s Last Dodo Bird (thought to be extinct), he sets his sights instead on award glory in the scientific realm.

The plan succeeds in entertaining fashion only to come up short in the prize department, which leads to a series of exploits that could finally garner The Pirate Captain the riches and recognition he’s long sought. The catch—and moral quandary—is that they would come at the price of compromising his close relationships and pirate ethics (such as they are). Indeed, despite the pirating context and how that is exploited for laughs and adventure, it’s the film’s lessons of integrity and loyalty that will resonate as takeaways for kids on how they should live.

Tonally, this is a broad and unabashed farce, rather smart about its comedy yet never too high-minded or obscure, with odd throwaway one-liner gems like “London smells like Grandma” or cheeky pirate monikers such as The Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens and The Pirate With Gout. In true Brit fashion it also sinks to gallows humor on occasion (from dining on exotic animals to a joke about the Elephant Man), but always in ways that are amusing rather than morbid. This is a movie that knows how to have fun while refusing to dumb things down.

Visually, Aardman’s claymation continues to be a welcome standout in a CG-dominated medium. Even if only on a subliminal level, the real-life figurines with their detailed textures and designs add a sense of reality that other forms of animation (by their very natures) cannot achieve. It’s more tangible, with the feeling of literal craftsmanship, which makes some of the feats of visual spectacle all-the-more remarkable. Its 3D is effective, too, but not necessary to enjoy this action-filled romp that also crams visual gags into the film’s periphery as if daring you to catch them.

Further fleshing things out is a lively voice-cast, with the most pleasant surprise coming from Hugh Grant in the lead. Unlike most A-list stunt casting, Grant’s voice is unrecognizable even when you know it’s him—and that’s to his credit.  Grant isn’t just cashing an easy check with a sound-booth gig; his Pirate Captain is a legitimate and fully-realized comic performance, and one of the better displays of his talent in recent memory. A veritable who’s-who of British actors (and Al Roker) round out the ensemble, all spot-on in roles that range from supporting characters to side caricatures.

This rousing endeavor is inventive and impressive, taking the art of claymation to new heights, and strikes its lessons with a sincere rather than heavy hand. It also wisely avoids any Darwinian controversy by never even mentioning Evolution, with the few joking references to the theory being shrewdly vague without a hint of indoctrination.

For all its intelligence, ingenuity and creativity, the smartest thing about The Pirates! Band of Misfits is that it simply is what it is unabashedly, and has a blast being just that. It will have children wanting to play sword fight and make adventures of their own, but also to value friendship more than riches. And yes, it’ll also have kids wanting to mix baking soda and vinegar with the hopes of combustible effects but, truth be told, you’ll probably want to help them.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: There are pubs where pirates hang out and drink, but the drinks are never defined as alcoholic. A couple of pirates act as if inebriated. 
  • Language/Profanity: One use of the A-word.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: A shot of nudists on a ship (nothing is exposed). One of the minor characters is a sexy-looking and shapely female pirate.
  • Violence: Pirate-related violence, including swordplay and gunplay, all in a comical/cartoonish context. A pirate is stabbed by a sword offscreen and falls to the ground on-screen. The arm falls off of a person with the plague. A person is almost beheaded.