Humor is packed into 'Pirates! Band of Misfits’

April 29, 2012

The fact that Aardman Animation studio has never received the same amount of success as Pixar is a cinematic crime. Animators/directors Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt have created iconic animated characters ("Wallace & Gromit," "Chicken Run," "Shaun the Sheep"), but the studio has little recognition outside its U.K. homeland.

You can now add to Aardman's list of superior animated entertainment "The Pirates! Band of Misfits," a rousing, wickedly smart high-seas adventure that could teach Johnny Depp a thing or two about putting the jolly back in Jolly Roger. Considering the "Caribbean" franchise pirates are now about as fun as those in Somalia, that's no difficult task. Based on a popular British children's book, "The Pirates! An Adventure with Scientists" (the title under which it's being released in the U.K.), Lord and Newitt's fingerprints are still all over this film (quite literally, considering they used old-school clay animation). The film is a treasure chest of wit, both verbal and visual, with each frame rich in gags.

Those who appreciate the dry Brit wit (you know, the combo of exposed insecurities and ensuing awkward embarrassment) will find much here. Hugh Grant, no stranger to making the most of exposed awkwardness, voices the swarthy Pirate Captain, a second-tier scoundrel who's always a plank-step behind his archrivals Black Bellamy (voiced by Jeremy Piven), Peg Leg Hastings (voiced by Lenny Henry) and Cutlass Liz (voiced by Salma Hayek).

The Captain's chance for immortality arises rather unexpectedly, though, when he encounters the one and only Charles Darwin (voiced by David Tennant), who points out that their winged mascot Polly is not actually a parrot but a long-thought-extinct dodo bird.

This sends the crew back to London to collect what they are sure will be their fortune and ensuing fame, only to be confronted by a very pirate-phobic Queen Victoria (voiced by Imelda Staunton), who possesses quite a booty of her own.

Humor is packed into "Pirates'" cannons and aimed just as much at adults as it is at children (I don't think too many under 10 will catch the Elephant Man cameo). Some have raised the question of why the book's original title did not make it to the States, citing the studio's fear that the "Scientists" may have been off-putting to those folks in the U.S. who believe "The Flintstones" is a documentary. I tend to think that the word itself just doesn't scream adventure (just like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is much sexier than "Globe-Trotting Archeology Professor").

However it's referred to, "Pirates!" deserves every doubloon earned by setting the bar high for animation this year. And I can only hope it will earn Aardman Animation the mainstream acceptance its animated brethren at Pixar have monopolized on the cinematic seas.