Pirates!, The: Band of Misfits

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/12/12 11:34:00

"What's wrong with 'An Adventure with Scientists?' Not a lot."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

It's a bit of a puzzle to fans of the medium (and quality family movies) that Aardman Animation is not more popular in the U.S. Is it just too British? It can't be the quality of their work - even something like "The Pirates!", which isn't quite as brilliant as "Chicken Run" or their Wallace & Gromit pieces, has a tremendously impressive amount of quality packed into every frame and the animation thereof.

Though his crew loves him, The Pirate Captain (voice of Hugh Grant) is considered a joke by other aquatic marauders, so he sets out to win the annual Pirate of the Year Award with equal parts delusion and determination. He finds no booty on any of the ships he raids, although a passenger on one, the Beagle, believes that his parrot Polly is quite extraordinary. Promised rewards beyond compare, the crew and this Charles Darwin (voice of David Tennant) voyage to London to present Polly to the Royal Society, even though The Pirate Captain's trusty Number Two (voice of Martin Freeman) finds the whole thing suspicious and it brings them perilously near the pirate-hating Queen Victoria (voice of Imelda Staunton).

Aardman productions, whether stop-motion like this film or CGI like the recent Arthur Christmas, tend to be simple in concept but meticulously constructed in production, and The Pirates! is no exception. From the way that the pirates are named, it's not likely that Gideon Defoe's original book (which he adapted as a screenplay) at least imitates something pitched to those whose age has not attained a second digit, and the vast majority of the jokes are some variation on "this character is rather dim". Defoe, director Peter Lord, co-director Jeff Newitt, and the rest of the filmmakers pack creativity into every corner, though, whether it be with amusing anachronisms (and other liberties taken with history), background gags that will eventually give home audiences' freeze-frame buttons a workout, and tossed-off references that will amuse the adults in the theater without leaving a hole in the movie for the kids. It's cognizant of being a kids' movie about thieves and cutthroats without ruining the fun.

Many of these jokes are small, but they're all executed with great precision. One of the benefits of animation is that sight gags can be timed right down to the frame, and one would be hard-pressed to find a segment where Lord and company haven't got the timing exactly right. The animation is, quite honestly, so good that its easy to take for granted; while many of the company's previous productions have emphasized the handmade look (even adding fingerprints to CGI characters meant to look like plasticine), this one shares the same look without pointing out that the characters were molded in someone's hands. Movement is smooth, and the integration of computer effects and traditional 2D bits is pretty seamless. As one might expect, stop-motion makes the transition to 3D quite well.

The voice cast, as often seems to be the case in British family movies, is loaded. Hugh Grant and Martin Freeman may not have particularly distinctive voices, but they've got comic timing just as good as the filmmakers, and they do deadpan wit as well as anybody. Imelda Staunton, on the other hand, isn't doing deadpan; she's playing a symbol of British reserve as big and broad as she can, and it's a riot. David Tennant is somewhere in between as Darwin, but making every line reading count. And then, in smaller roles, you've got Brendan Gleeson, Ashley Jensen, Lenny Henry, Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, and the booming Brian Blessed (which was inevitable as soon as the words "pirate king" were uttered).

(For some reason, a couple of voices were switched up for the American release, and the film's title was changed from that of Defoe's original book, "The Pirates! in An Adventure with Scientists". Unnecessary, considering how unexceptional one voice is and how little you here the other, but it the localization doesn't seem to harm the movie.)

"The Pirates!" is good fun, done by people who do animation and family entertainment as well as anybody. There's no reason that it shouldn't work for someone seeking that out, especially if you don't mind an English accent or five.

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