Wow, what fun.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits, the latest stop-motion animated film from Aardman studios, may not have the wry, acerbic wit or the cleverness of their Wallace & Gromit franchise, but it's wonderful to see a film that so gleefully rolls around in its own silliness. There are entirely too many children's films these days that are based on frenetic, breathless action, and shrill, obnoxious noise. And while The Pirates! certainly has its share of breathless, goofy action scenes (there is a scene, for instance, wherein our heroes scoot in a rapidly flying bathtub away from a rolling Eater Island Head), it, for once, feels less like a desperate grasp at bland, heart-pounding thrills, and more like legitimate, old-fashioned slapstick. It's not as impeccably classic as the slapstick in the surprisingly entertaining The Three Stooges, but I'd rather have this kind of gentle, childish approach to comedy than a dull string of misplaced pop culture references.
Yes, the film feels childish, but in the best possible way. It brings up some classical figures (Queen Victoria and Charles Darwin feature heavily in the film), but repurposes them for reasons of high absurdity, and doesn't get bogged down in cultural significance. Your average 6-year-old may know the names of Charles Darwin and Queen Victoria, but they will have no concept of the minutiae evolutionary biology or of Victorian moral mores. Some children's films are clever about incorporating sophisticated historical jokes for the sake of the parents. The Pirates! pointedly gives the most cursory of lip service to the grown-ups, and charges headlong toward the kids' toys. As a result, we have a film that never droops a hair above playful.
Pirate Captain (a flouncy Hugh Grant) heads up an ineffectual, yet very happy, band of pirates in the late 1840s. They all get along, these pirates, and spend more time having meals (they are fond of Ham Night) than they do actually pillaging and looting and murdering. Indeed, these are the nicest criminals you'll ever meet. In his crew are a wimpy albino (Anton Yelchin), a goutish old man (Brendan Gleeson), a stern first officer (Martin Freeman), and a surprisingly curvacous young man with a womanly voice (Ashley Jensen). Their beloved mascot is a dodo bird named Polly, whom they all think is a parrot. Dodos reportedly went extinct in the late 1660s.
Pirate Captain dreams of winning the Pirate of the Year Award, given out annually by The Pirate King (Brian Blessed). Pirate Captain has never won in the past, always shown up by Cutlass Liz, Peg-Leg Hastings, and Black Bellamy (Salma Hayek, Lenny Henry, and Jeremy Piven), but is determined to win. His plundering leads him to, of all ships, The Beagle, and the lovelorn Charles Darwin (David Tennant) who is trying to impress Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) with his interest in biology. The pirates and Darwin's adventures lead them to giant steamships, flying Zeppelins, intelligent apes, mad chefs and The Elephant Man.
And while many of the gags fly at you kinda quick, and the 3-D effects have the usual meh non-enhancement of the material, there is something infectious about The Pirates! I think it may be the film's unrelenting cheerfulness. The main pirate characters may face hardships, and they may even come to emotional blows, but they always seem eager to have fun, and, despite being brigands, are never outwardly cruel to anyone. Queen Victoria may be hateful, but the phrase “Queen Victoria is the villain” is enough to make grown-ups crack a smile. Darwin himself, young and beardless and unpublished at this point in his career, is depicted as a spineless, whimpering nerd, which may be appropriate, seeing as he was, in real life, a dull pigeon fancier.
The animation is gorgeous and fun as well. This is Aardman using their usual brand of stop-motion plasticine animation, and you can still occasionally see the thumb marks of the animators in certain frames. I like that. It gives the animated characters a kind of shimmering life all their own. Some CGI looks way too sterile for its own good. I like this look better.
No hatred in the film. No crassness. Just a billowing, bumbling affection.