Amid all the hullabaloo over Pixar’s string of masterpieces, we sometimes forget that another animation house boasts an equally impressive record. Britain’s Aardman has produced five feature-length films in the past twelve years… four of which hold a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 88% or higher. Their latest offering, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, fits right in with their previous efforts: a whimsical confection that effortlessly puts a smile on the lips of the harshest cynic.
The key to its appeal lies in its most basic elements. After bowing to the pressure for CG features with Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas, the studio returns to the delightfully old-fashioned notion of full-bore stop motion. The technique lends the film a soul that no computer can match, assembled by craftsmen rather than programmers and buoying a script full of clever notions. Director Peter Lord takes the most spirited notions of the Pirates of the Caribbean films – the knowingly ridiculous elements of piracy – and condenses them into an 87 minute romp celebrating all things skull-and-crossboney.
It suits our heroes well. They really, really love being pirates after all, though they can’t settle on the best aspects. The cutlasses, the sea shanties, Ham Night… it’s all fantastic, despite the consternation it causes Queen Victoria (voiced by Imelda Staunton) and her cronies back in England. The international brotherhood of buccaneers only really clash with each other during the annual Pirate of the Year award, when competition turns fierce and quips turn vicious. The aptly named Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) desperately wants the award, but despite his luxurious beard and odd-looking parrot, he has yet to claim it. This year, he vows, things will be different, and with a zany-yet-loyal crew in tow sets out to show everyone who really buckles the swashes on the high seas.
The daft absurdity of this world borrows heavily from Wallace and Gromit: droll and deadpan, with an air of innocence that doesn’t preclude plenty of sophisticated riffs for the grown-ups. The characters seem unaware of their ridiculous qualities, but their resolute cheerfulness belies their status as the butt of the joke. They clearly enjoy their lot in life and their joviality proves infectious. This is piracy as viewed from a child’s perspective: a chance to goof off with your buddies and score great piles of gold while thumbing your nose at the stuffed shirts who disapprove. Lord focuses on the innocence and fun of that equation and strikes the perfect tone to make it work.
He also scores big with sight gags and physical humor, infused with a sense of the ridiculous that Monty Python might recognize. Here, the claymation really comes into its own and the fabric of the world instantly boosts the effectiveness of the various pratfalls. Lord also finds a subtly iconoclastic undertone to it all, quietly endorsing the virtues of marching to your own beat. We follow these guys because they’re outsiders and because they love what they do; Pirates! milks that equation just long enough to score some big laughs, then departs with a bow before it wears out its welcome.
The trick is tougher than it looks, especially when one wrong move can turn charming into smarmy. It also depends a great deal on a decidedly British sense of humor, much the way Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run did. You can sense Columbia’s unease with the equation, especially in the lame title which they changed from the much more droll The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists. Thankfully, the rest of the movie is smart enough to stick to its guns, delivering a frothy mixture of good humor, wonderful characters and even a lesson or two along the way. Before the summer bombast begins in earnest, it’s nice to have a wonderful little film like this to set the pace.