Aardman Animations has probably been more consistent than Pixar, especially of late, yet the stop-motion powerhouse doesn't get half the attention. "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" didn't buck the box-office trend, but it proves that even with the most generic of premises, Aardman knows how to appeal to a diverse audience.
Intent on winning the prestigious Pirate of the Year award, the generically named Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) scours the ocean in search of treasure with his deeply loyal crew of ham-loving pirates. When famed pirates Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) burst his bubble, however, he becomes desperate. After hijacking the boat of scientist Charles Darwin (David Tennant), he discovers his beloved parrot Polly isn't a parrot after all, and could win him the fortune he seeks to make his Pirate of the Year dream come true. But to do so, he'll have to travel to London, where the pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) awaits.
If you're looking for a film that epitomizes British humor, "The Pirates" is exactly that. The jokes are silly, clever and come in rapid-fire fashion, many under the radar. Few animated films balance pure slapstick and wit the way this film does, which is a Hallmark of the best family films. "Despicable Me" is the closest recent example. Most films that do both deliver them in segmented fashion, whereas certain scenes are more physical for the kiddies and others smaller moments are for the adults. "The Pirates" can get both demographics laughing at the same time.
That said, "The Pirates" doesn't deliver that many belly laughs for the adults. It prefers being quirky and totally silly and it commits to this style early and often. Characters such as The Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin) spout the most absurd things out of their mouth, but because writer Gideon Defoe never yields, what could come off as bungling stupidity comes off as funny bungling stupidity.
The film moves at a brisk pace, perhaps because a lot of the traveling by boat happens in 2D animated sequences on a treasure map (though one of the pirate's jobs is to throw red discs out the back of the boat so that red dots show up on the map). The major sequences move quickly into one another, fitting some positive character and theme-building moments in between. The result is a well-structured little film with plenty of big, physical adventure and a decent enough amount of heart.
Nothing about the story is that emotionally moving, though Martin Freeman voicing Pirate Captain's No. 2 man gives it a good go as the only logical or thoughtful character in the entire film who often calls Pirate Captain out on his impulsive and ignorant behavior. Instead, "The Pirates" succeeds largely on its potent sense of danger, anchored by the terrifying Queen Victoria who couldn't have been equipped with a better voice than that of Staunton.
Grant does surprisingly strong and practically unrecognizable voice work as the Pirate Captain, a character both likable and one you can only shake your head at some times. He's the perfect lead for a silly family film such as this. He's heroic and embodies good leadership qualities (hence why his crew adores him), but in child-like fashion he often forgets what's most important, which allows for an easy way for the kids to access the thematic points of the story.
So much of "The Pirates," however, will go over kids' heads, though not in some inappropriate way. Rather, much of what makes the movie so funny is how it plays with pirate genre conventions and film conventions in general, which kids obviously have no concept of. Start to finish, it never ceases to find the clever thing to do or say.
Simply, "The Pirates" will have audiences of all ages grinning from ear to buccaneer.
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