I like pirates. I enjoy inherently silly things. I’m an admirer of Aardman Animations, having greatly enjoyed Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run. I guffawed at the trailer for The Pirates! Band of Misfits enough times that I ventured out to see a children’s movie on a Sunday afternoon all by my lonesome, then felt super awkward when dads started filing in with their kids. So it’s with some puzzlement that I report that Pirates! has few belly laughs, and perhaps worse, nothing that makes it particularly memorable.
For a film with a runtime of 88 minutes, the first half-hour feels like a laborious set-up for a plot that doesn’t really need to be set up. The Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) doesn’t exactly inspire fear on the high seas, manning a crew that’s strictly amateur hour; each one has as descriptive a name as their captain, such as the Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman), the Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), or my personal favorite, the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen), a play on that old trope whereby girl pirates disguise themselves as boy pirates. Despite his ineptitude, the Cap’n still has his sights set on winning the Pirate of the Year trophy.
To do that, though, he’ll need to rake in some big booty. After raiding nudist and ghost ships, the crew happens upon Charles Darwin (David Tennant) via attempted robbery, though he has as little gold as they do. Luckily, Darwin realizes that the Captain’s beloved parrot (Polly, natch) is actually the last surviving dodo. Cue visions of the Captain winning that trophy. This sets off a chain of increasingly ridiculous situations, most of which aren’t as funny as they should be.
I need to stress that Pirates! is not a bad movie. In fact, its anarchic whimsy reminds me more than a little of Monty Python. There are so many things here that I like in theory. The funny names, yes, but also the fact that directors Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt, working from Gideon Defoe’s adaptation of his own books, have irreverent fun with historical figures. In its initial U.K. release, the film was titled The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, and unfortunately, one can surmise why it had to be renamed for the U.S. market. I’m hoping British audiences wouldn’t understand why I was so surprised to see not only Darwin, but jokes about evolution (Darwin’s monkey Mr. Bobo bears more than a passing resemblance to his owner), while watching a family film in an American theater.
The film’s two biggest assets are its animation and its voice cast. Aardman has made a couple of underwhelming forays into computer animation, but stop-motion is still their bread and butter, and it looks wonderful here. The hand-crafted characters and sets are blended with CG backdrops to beautiful effect. As far as human characters go, their stop-motion folk have more personality than any brought to life by former parent company DreamWorks, maybe even more than Pixar. Those characters are given voice by a number of talented British actors, including Gervais alums Freeman and Jensen (The Office and Extras, respectively), along with Grant, Gleeson, and Tennant. That’s not to mention Imelda Staunton as an evil Queen Victoria, who shows off some rather un-queenly skills during the big finish.
I’ve mentioned everything that works because the reasons the movie doesn’t work are sort of hard to crack. There’s the simple plot, which is given more ornamentation than it needs. An attempt at Pixar-esque poignancy in the last act doesn’t feel earned. Ultimately, its charm and whimsy feel forced more often than not, which I imagine is a pretty subjective criticism. As much as I enjoy Monty Python, there are times when they’re just a bit too scattershot. The same goes for Aardman. Pirates! and its makers have their hearts and (for the most part) their minds in the right place, but the material feels more suited to a 30-minute special than a feature-length film.