[This was originally posted under the UK title The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists. It has been reposted to coincide with the US release.]
Aardman are one of those rare companies almost impossible to dislike: they've cornered the market in large scale stop-motion animation, and the level of artistry involved in each of their productions demonstrates why. Pirates! Band Of Misfits is replete with puns and gags hidden in the background, whether the name of a shop, a story in a newspaper or poster on a wall. The attention to detail is stunning and demands the viewer keep their eyes flitting across the screen to not miss anything, even though return viewings will certainly be rewarded with a fresh trove of delights.
If a viewer is to be asked to pay such surgical attention to each shot, this is the right film for it. Everything from the animation to the character models are as comically rich as expected from the people behind Wallace And Gromit, with a deft touch not only for capturing the nuances of movement for maximum comedic effect, but the timing as well. Considering how long it takes for these movies to be made and how painstaking the process, the ease with which it plays out is an astonishing achievement.
The Pirates! Band Of Misfits
The script is amusing by itself, with plenty of joyously ridiculous wordplay, but as ever with Aardman, it's the wordless jokes which earn biggest laughs. For every one which doesn't work - the monkey with subtitle cards is too close to Gromit for comfort, with none of his adorable expressiveness - there are at least three which do. A playful score keeps the tone jolly, although leaving out the brilliant shanty from the trailer (above), or replacing it with a different one, was a serious misstep.
The voice cast work hard to keep up with the high calibre of those production values, with Hugh Grant's Pirate Captain swinging between bloody-minded gusto and eye-rolling despair on a turn of a doubloon. It's not far from Grant's usual brand of buffoonish charm, but it's clear the actor is having a ball, and his enthusiasm (allied with the outstanding animation) is passed on to the audience. Imelda Staunton also throws herself into the incessantly apoplectic, historically re-envisioned Queen Victoria, seemingly bursting a blood vessel with every word spoken - two if that word is 'Pirate', delivered time and time again with the whistling fury of a boiled kettle.
Her bombast is only overshadowed by an unexpected but cheer-worthy cameo in the shape of a Pirate King, who steals the entire movie in two short scenes. Of the main cast, only Martin Freeman can feel short-changed, playing the usual sensible sidekick as from seemingly every one of his screen outings. David Tennant's stuttery Darwin is a more effective straight man to the Pirate Captain's excesses.
If you've seen any of the movie's promotional material, you'll have noticed a number of big names not yet mentioned in this review: Salma Hayek (playing Cutlass Liz, who is nowhere near as badass as our Community Manager Liz), Jeremy Piven and Lenny Henry do indeed feature, but in roles best described as high-profile cameos, largely insignificant to the unfolding of the story. Their characters are reasonably vivid for their short time on-screen, but barely appear outside a single scene in a pub. As much fun as it is to have them part of this world, there's just no room for them. As with many of Aardman's big-screen productions (Chicken Run), there's too much going on, to the extent that it can seem feel like the story only exists to accommodate the extensive background details, rather than the other way around.
The plot, for example, is a scatty patchwork of three different stories - an Awards story, a Darwin story, and a Queen Victoria story - providing plentiful silly set-pieces and jokes, but none with the structure to allow them to coalesce into a satisfying whole. What's left is a series of visually gorgeous, often hilarious individual sketches, linked by a common thread (pirates) too thin to hold everything together in a satisfactory manner.
The movie's silly charm is an effective disguise, but cannot cover the moment when, upon leaving the auditorium, the feeling sinks in that this was a meal served in a thousand enjoyable morsels, each pleasurable in their own right but nowhere near as filling as the promised feast promised by those magnificent trailers. The lack of a real ending - the movie just stops, cutting to a credits reel that is arguably the movie's most sustained piece of comedy - is indicative of an experience that never quite adds up, feeling more like three stitched together cartoons than a real movie. It's too loveable and accomplished to not be enjoyable, but tragically difficult to wholeheartedly adore.