Aardman Animations is somewhat heroic in the realm of modern animation. The British studio, founded by Peter Lord and David Sproxton, is sort of like the Pixar of stop-motion animation – nearly everything it churns out, from shorts to feature films, is charming and wonderful. Wallace and Gromit have been household names for nearly 25 years, Chicken Run should be on any film lover’s list of the greatest animated films, and Aardman’s continual production of spirited shorts and television shows has been populating the British consciousness for decades.
In terms of ushering in a new era of Aardman stop-motion greatness, the film is certainly disappointing. Yet the film, directed by Peter Lord himself, retains the dry wit and overt cheekiness that makes an Aardman film special.
Curiously, Aardman hasn’t released a stop-motion feature since the 2005 Wallace and Gromit film, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Since then, Aardman Digital has ushered in a decidedly less successful output of cheeky features – 2006’s Flushed Away is easily the most expendable entry in the Aardman canon, and last year’s Arthur Christmas waded through painful screwball humor to reach a beautiful human message. All of these histrionics leads to Aardman’s grand return to stop-motion features, The Pirates! Band of Misfits. It is an appropriately bland title for a film that is kind of non-descript, a 90-minute chuckle-fest where the hero’s main goal is to win a Best Pirate contest. In terms of ushering in a new era of Aardman stop-motion greatness, the film is certainly disappointing. Yet the film, directed by Peter Lord himself, retains the dry wit and overt cheekiness that makes an Aardman film special.
Based on Aardman’s most recent short, So You Want to be a Pirate!, the film tells the tale of put-upon swashbuckler, The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), whose sole desire is to win the Pirate of the Year award. When one considers the life-and-death stakes at the heart of Chicken Run’s narrative, such a flimsy character goal is enough to furrow one’s brow even in the face of the film’s incessant throwaway gags. But it quickly becomes evident that the character’s focus on the mundane – much like the character’s name and the film’s title – is a play on diminished expectations. The bumbling Pirate Captain is a surface-level buccaneer, literally a misfit adventurer focused on the trappings of the piratical lifestyle without actually living it very successfully.
The great joy of Aardman films is the effortless blending of dry wit and broad slapstick. The Pirates! unfortunately focuses too keenly on the latter, its cleverness spared for only a handful of one-liners and self-referential puns.
One of his trappings – his beloved avian companion, Polly – may hold the key to winning the Pirate of the Year award. Turns out Polly isn’t a parrot but rather the last surviving Dodo, a discovery that could shake the scientific world and lead to untold booty. The Pirate Captain and his crew journey with struggling young scientist Charles Darwin (portrayed as a hopeless geek desperate for a girlfriend) to a scientific convention, where they cross paths with the treacherous Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), who seethes at the very thought of pirates.
The great joy of Aardman films is the effortless blending of dry wit and broad slapstick. The Pirates! unfortunately focuses too keenly on the latter, its cleverness spared for only a handful of one-liners and self-referential puns. Placing emphasis almost squarely on the zaniness is disappointing when one considers the long, celebrated history of Aardman greatness. Nevertheless, the studio’s first stop-motion feature in over a decade is still undeniably funny, its relentless silliness eventually prodding even a curmudgeon like me to chuckle along.
[notification type=”star”]65/100 ~ OKAY. With a story as non-descript as its title, The Pirates! Band of Misfits relies on an incessant barrage of goofy gags to win its audience.[/notification]