Tuesday, May 1, 2012


"It's only impossible if you stop to think about it!"

As a call to action, this line is typical of both the exuberant silliness and the sly, throwaway gaggery in The Pirates! Band of Misfits, the newest stop-motion animation comedy adventure from  Aardman studios, those cheerfully nutty folk responsible for the Wallace and Gromit series, Chicken Run, and Arthur Christmas.

This time, they apply their considerable skills to a swashbuckling pirate adventure, a huge canvas that involves a ship and a crew and the wide-open seas, and a story that stretches from the exotic pirate islands of the West Indies to the foggy, cobbled streets, dockside taverns, and royal palaces of Victorian London. It's a daunting task for a bunch of people whose job is rolling up teeny bits of colored clay into faces and figures and photographing them in action, one frame at a time (but, hey, it's only impossible if you stop to think about it).

Okay, I'm a sucker for a good pirate yarn, as we all know. And I'm usually the first one to pull a mournful face and weep into my grog over the sad fact that ever since the popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, pirate stories are once more considered goofball kid stuff. (What other kind is there? Captain Blood, says I, the 1935 Errol Flynn version. Subversive in its sympathetic portrait of pirates as mostly ordinary men who have fallen out of favor with fortune or, worse, been victimized by social injustice, it's viewpoint may be romanticized, but it's still a perfectly credible basis for rousing drama.)

But if we must settle for silliness, the Aardmanites are the undisputed champs.

In this case, they are aided and abetted by the source material, author Gideon Defoe and his series of slim, absurdist comic novels. (The film is mostly based on his "The Pirates! In an adventure with Scientists.") Scripted by Defoe, and co-directed by Aardman co-founder Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt, the story takes place in 1837, by which time most piracy had already been routed out of the high seas. But tell that to our hero, Pirate Captain (voice of Hugh Grant), known for his "luxuriant" beard, his beloved pet bird, Polly, and his insatiable love of ham.

Adored by his crew (including the sensible, loyal Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman), the Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), the gentle Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin), and the Suspiciously Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen)), Pirate Captain longs to win the coveted Pirate of the Year Award. But to do so, he needs to amass a lot of booty. After some unsuccessful attempts to plunder passing ships (a school field trip, a nudists' cruise), he and his crew board The Beagle and capture naturalist Charles Darwin (David Tenant), a science nerd who fears he'll never get a girlfriend. When Darwin informs the Captain that Polly is a rare Dodo, long thought to be extinct, and hints there could be a lot of prize money for exhibiting her to the Royal Society in London, the crew sails for England.

The fun is all in the details. There are rival pirate captains (voiced by Jeremy Piven, Lenny Henry, and Salma Hayek), an Elvis-like Pirate King,  a deadpan monkey who communicates with flash-cards, brief appearances by Jane Austen and The Elephant Man, a hot-air dirigible, and the notoriously pirate-hating Queen Victoria herself (Imelda Staunton).

Pay attention to the wry dialogue, the newspapers, posters and paintings glimpsed in the backgrounds (most of which are scrolled over again during the closing credits, so stick around), and sight gags, like the Captain's flag, with its skull and ham bones. The cartoon maps with their animated winds, Neptune, and mermaids chasing the ship around are a riot, too, so abandon rational thinking (that old killjoy) and enjoy the ride.

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