Boyish rom-com lead Hugh Grant is about as far from a 19th century pirate as you could imagine, but then The Pirate Captain he voices in Aardman’s Pirates! Band of Misfits is not your average scorbutic seadog. Preening, caddish and exceedingly proud of his “luxuriant” beard, The Pirate Captain is every bit the roguish man-child that Grant so often plays on screen and off.
This piece of inspired casting is the most enjoyable aspect of Pirates! Band of Misfits, creating the most memorable interpretation of a pirate since Johnny Depp channelled Keith Richards’s rock-star swagger in Jack Sparrow. The film itself is good compared to most children’s animated features but middling next to Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit TV shorts and features.
Pirates! is based on a series of books by Gideon Defoe, who also worked on the script for the film. The books, which I haven’t read, sound like smartly silly and gently subversive parodies of the adventure genre in the mould of The Princess Bride.
The Pirate Captain — that is the only name we know him by — is an incompetent pirate who leads a crew of misfits as they roam the high seas looking for plunder. Vain yet loyal and goodhearted, he inspires utter devotion in ship shipmates, who are all known only by descriptions such as Pirate With Gout, Pirate With a Scarf and Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate, a blonde bombshell who hides her femininity behind a fake beard.
The Pirate Captain’s single biggest ambition is to gather enough loot to beat rivals Black Bellamy and Cutlass Liz and be named Pirate of the Year. This sets the crew on a collision course with historical figures such as a young Charles Darwin — portrayed as a geek desperate to make it to second base with a girl — and a pirate-hating Queen Victoria.
The film is Aardman’s first feature to return to stop-animation since Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2005 (though they have made a couple of Claymation shorts since) and the results are as beautiful as ever. The clay figures have a wonderfully tactile feel to them and the character models are nearly as charming as those of Wallace & Gromit.
The visuals are subtly enhanced with CGI, making this one of the most attractive films that Aardman has made to date. I saw a 2D version of the film, but other critics have praised the restrained use of 3D in the film. The voice acting — featuring the likes of Selma Hayek, Dr Who’s David Tennant, Imelda Staunton and Brendan Gleeson — is top-notch, too.
Yet despite all these virtues, there is something missing in this film. It is not as easy to warm to The Pirate Captain, his pet dodo and his rag-tag crew as it is to the hapless Gromit and the bungling Wallace. Sure, they are appealing and amusing, but they are never as funny or relatable as Aardman’s dog and owner duo.
As with the studio’s Flushed Away, Pirates! often feels like an awkward compromise between the Englishness of Aardman’s whimsy and the brashness of animation films made on blockbuster budgets. Aardman’s last CGI film, Arthur Christmas, towards the end of 2011 managed to reconcile these forces more convincingly.
There are hints of Aardman’s droll humour in background visual jokes, the wry one-liners and the slapstick chase scenes, but they never achieve the madcap charm and eccentric wit of the studio at its best. Pirates! Band of Misfits delivers a few chuckles, but it won’t leave your timbers shivering. — (c) 2012 NewsCentral Media