Raise the flag, ahoy there and something about a mizzenmast! There be pirates afoot, and clay men tell good tales.
Based on Gideon Defoe‘s The Pirates! series of books, Aardman Animation’s first stop motion film since Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit brings back something awfully British about piracy. Long before pirates were swinging aboard ships and copying our CDs, or being birthed by Keith Richards, they were simple English folk full of “Arrs” and “Me hearties”. Taking a sharp turn about from Defoe’s religious establishment having issues with Charles Darwin, the worst pirates in the world are off on an adventure with scientists.
A crew of ragtag pirates are led by the affably ambitious Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant), possibly the worst pirate ever but delightfully ignorant of that fact. When he decides to enter the Pirate of the Year competition, he is met with nothing but laughter from superstar pirates Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek). After attempting to hijack The Beagle, the crew meets Charles Darwin (David Tennant) who informs them that their parrot Polly is, in fact, a dodo. Accompanied by a trained chimpanzee named Mr. Bobo, who communicates through flash cards, they all head to London to present Polly to the Royal Society. The only problem is that Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) hates pirates.
Author Defoe adapts his own work to the screen, in particular The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists (its original UK title) and The Pirates! in an Adventure with Whaling. Eschewing with some of the more confrontational aspects about the battle between church and state, Defoe piles on loads of humour that is compatible with Aardman’s typically wry sensibility. “Some of you,” says the Captain addressing his crew, “are as ugly as a sea cucumber. Some of you are closer to being a chair or coat rack than a pirate, and some of you are fish I’ve just dressed up in a hat”. Not all of the jokes hit with equal impact, feeling slightly watered down for an international audience, but what they might lack in idiosyncratic quirk they make up for in volume. It’s barely controlled insanity, and that’s just fine.
Packed with one-liners, the excellent voice cast are often unrecognisable behind their piratey facades, but this is a welcome change from lazy stunt casting. Case in point is David Tenant, know for Doctor Who, but worlds apart as the weedy and sexless Darwin. Brian Blessed, on the other hand, delivers his familiar booms as The Pirate King. Hugh Grant, who claims to have been inadvertently channelled British comedian and storyteller Willie Rushton, is a typically self-conscious version of his public persona, the perfect combination for a pirate who just doesn’t cut the mustard.
As a technical achievement, this may be one of Aardman’s most ambitious stop-motion films to date. Using the painstaking process of claymation for the principal characters, there is a look achieved that can’t be replicated in computer generated imagery, although no delightfully quaint fingerprints can be seen on noses as there were in Wallace & Gromit. The sets have been extended with CG, providing water and other effects that clay just doesn’t do very well. While The Pirates! Band of Misfits doesn’t quite share the off-the-wall madness of its predecessors, it is an enjoyable romp and well worth your time.