With so much mindless kids’ fare being released into theatres on a weekly basis, it’s easy to forget that there are still a few studios out there eager to make family-friendly films that are smart and engaging for both little ones and their adult accompaniment. Late last year, Aardman Animation gifted us with the near-perfect Arthur Christmas and now they’ve returned with a sublimely oddball adventure film called The Pirates! Band of Misfits.
Beautifully animated with CGI-enhanced stop-motion, and packed to the brim with goofy spirit, the story follows the sweetly dopey Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) as he goes to the ends of the earth to win the Pirate of the Year award. After years of snubs, he’s pretty sure his chances are good this year thanks to his luxuriant beard and a pretty good (for him) haul of stolen booty.
His crew (including the always adorable Martin Freeman whose First Mate character actually resembles his real life personage) think he’s the best – mainly due to his frequent celebratory ham nights – and despite the fact that they’re a motley band of loveable screw-ups, they’re 100% committed to helping their beloved Pirate Captain all the way to glory.
Unfortunately, once Pirate Captain and his crew hit Blood Island to register, they’re greeted by rock star pirates Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) and Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), who are rolling in gold coins and peer adulation and are just as determined to win the coveted award. Determined to up his chances, Pirate Captain takes to the high seas to pillage some more boats for and stumbles across Charles Darwin (David Tennant) who discovers that the ship’s portly parrot Polly is actually the world’s last DoDo Bird. Darwin convinces the crew to take Polly to London and show her in a science competition that boasts a prize well worth the risk of a possible encounter with England’s pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton).
While the film may be directed at a slightly younger audience than Arthur Christmas and certainly Aardman’s other favourite subjects Wallace & Gromit, you wouldn’t know it from the feast of throwaway lines and background sight gags that are clearly there to keep adults interested while the kiddies laugh at the pratfalls.
Everything from the signage in London’s aptly named Dodgy Alley to the many hilarious reactions of the shocked scientists at Polly’s unveiling, to the bizarre artifacts in Darwin’s house to the special cameos from Jane Austen and The Elephant Man is proof that the Aardman team’s attention to even the smallest detail is truly astonishing.
Directors Peter Lord and Jim Newitt do an admirable job of balancing the film’s broader comedy with the dry, tongue-in-cheek humour while staying true to the film’s source material, two swashbuckling books by author-screenwriter Gideon Defoe.
What’s more, this is one of the few times that 3D feels like an actual justified addition to the film. Colours pop that much more, sight gags reach out at your from the screen and the audience is further plunged into the world the characters inhabit.
All in all, The Pirates! A Band of Misfits is a rollicking good time for the whole family that lovingly embraces its own gleeful absurdity and drags you along for the ride. I, for one, can’t wait to see what Aardman Animation Studios comes up with next.