Known in the UK as The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists, based on the Gideon Defoe book of the same name, The Pirates! Band of Misfits is a delightful stop-motion adventure/comedy from Aardman Animations (Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run). Pirates! isn’t quite as inventive or hilarious as some of the studio’s best work, but that’s not for lack of trying.
Hugh Grant voices the leader of a scrappy crew of pirates, known simply as The Pirate Captain. In fact, one of the best running gags is that no one on his crew has a proper name. They are The Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman), the Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin), and my favorite, The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen), a female pirate pretending to be a man. It’s a clever gag that doesn’t elicit laughs but definitely makes you smile.
The Pirate Captain wants the Pirate of the Year award, a nice little ego boost after years of pirating mediocrity. Award requirements include: obtaining the most booty and having a great big bushy beard. Along the way, he runs into a young scientist (hence the original title) by the name of Charles Darwin (David Tennant). Darwin is keen on the captain’s strange parrot for scientific reasons and the original quest is sidetracked by a jaunt to Victorian London. This isn’t the strongest plot but it does afford ample opportunity to poke gentle fun at swashbuckling conventions. There are plenty of sight gags: a witty explanation for the use of dots during travel-by-map scenes, puns, and two show-stopping set-pieces that come close to the majestic train chase in The Wrong Trousers.
The Pirate Captain and his crew are an amusing lot; you can tell the actors had plenty of fun voicing their parts. Grant certainly nails the Pirate Captain’s mix of dim-witted bravado and charm. However, because the characters are such a blast and we’re meeting them well into their time together, they seem better suited to something more episodic. Instead of the tale of these misfits’ biggest adventure, it would have been much more satisfying to see many smaller misadventures. It would make for a fantastic TV show.
The animation is one of the joys of the film. The London story has a lot to admire, but amidst high adventure on the seven seas is where these losers belong, as long as they bring Mr. Bobo. Some of the humor is a little sophisticated for a younger audience. In a theater packed with kids, I found myself and 3 other dads were the only ones laughing a number of times, but there’s nothing inappropriate. Wallace and Gromit set such a high bar for Aardman, when the studio doesn’t live up to it, the results can seem like a failure. While Pirates! isn’t in that rarefied air, it is still a pleasant way to spend 90-minutes.