Jul 25, 2012|
(UK/USA) Comedy/Animation. Directed by Peter Lord, Jeff Newitt. Starring Hugh Grant, David Tennant, Imelda Staunton, Martin Freeman. Category I. 88 minutes. Opened Jul 26.
Claymation pirates, a pudgy, evil Queen Victoria and a chimp-servant that communicates with notecards deliver more amused smiles than belly laughs during the 90-minute Aardman Studio offering “The Pirates! Band of Misfits.” Following on from the legacy of “Chicken Run” and the Oscar-winning “Wallace & Gromit,” the movie delivers a solid serving of entertainment through the tough-grind medium of stop-motion, but falls a little short when it comes to screwball humor.
The film follows a dysfunctional pirate crew, led by Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant, lending his voice to an animation for the first time), a charismatic but not-so-successful pirate head whose lifelong dream of winning the “Pirate of the Year” Award is hindered by his rivals: Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) and Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry). With his dimwitted swagger, the Captain faces a series of rollicking challenges on his quest to win the award. From the shores of Blood Island to the foggy streets of London, he and his crew bumps into the historical likes of Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) and Charles Darwin (David Tennant); then, it is discovered that the Captain’s “parrot” Polly is in fact an extinct creature, the dodo. Now, the motley crew must try to protect their bird and at the same time close the deal on the coveted prize.
The storyline, filled with heartwarming friendships and a mix of historical characters come-to-life, proves to be a too light on laughs. The movie loses some of the zingy gags found in previous Aardman productions by coasting on a lot of clichéd pirate puns. Director Peter Lord may have taken his reluctance to dumb down movies for kids a little too far. The writers make an effort to integrate high-brow humor to accommodate adult viewers, but a dozen evolution jokes from the Charles Darwin character and cameo appearances by the Elephant Man and Jane Austen will probably be missed by young children.
The star-studded cast delivers well, for the most part. The elegance in Grant’s voice is an odd fit for the rogue Pirate Captain. Grant gives a rather toned-down performance in an almost unrecognizable voice performance. Stealing the spotlight is the silent animal sidekick (reminiscent of Gromit), Mr. Bobo—Darwin’s chimp-servant who possesses notecards printed with snarky commentary. Though far less engaging than Gromit (who has the most expressive eyebrows in the history of claymation), Mr. Bobo still provides a lot of the entertainment in the film.
In the tech department, Aardman Animations’ magic comes through, capturing the delights of seamless claymation. The attention to detail in the movie is absolutely astonishing; the Blood Island set comes with countless tiny flourishes that really bring the background to life. The digital rendering of the ocean presents a convincing picture, but at the same time highlights the traditional craft of stop-motion animation—where physical objects are manipulated frame by frame to create the illusion of movements. Every character is crafted with style and has its own unique features—most notably the luxuriant beard of the Pirate Captain.
Maybe it’s the scale of production, or the extent of commercialism, or the all-star cast that has made this production a little lackluster. Had “The Pirates!” focused more on the homemade tricks of old-school stop-motion, and less on the subtle jokes centered on historical scientists and writers, it would have been a more effective film overall. Captured in one of the best pirate quotes ever, “You can’t say ‘arrrr’ and make everything better.”