Aardman Animations has a rich history of being the warm fuzzy side of stop motion animation. All of their movies and shows, from Wallace & Grommit to Chicken Run, manage to have the rough-spun quality that bespeaks to homemade sensibilities, a sweet timelessness that manages to carefully step between aching earnestness and the sort of clever comedy asides that can only come from the very British.
It was surprising then that the trailers for their latest film, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, seemed to rely on the pop music and jokey asides that were more at home with Dreamworks than the mellower aspirations of their prior work. Thankfully, uninspired marketing aside, The Pirates! manages to tap into that clever, visually inventive, emotionally rock solid movie making that makes Aardman a fan favorite, even if they’re not as big or bold as their counterparts.
The Pirates! concerns the voyages of Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), beloved leader of a motley crue who has more piratey zeal than menace or skill. Captain’s array of crewmembers love to work for him, even if they’re considered by the more serious and glamorous pirate crews to be little more than a bunch of absurd wanna-bes. Captain, however, dreams of more: he wants to make his mark enough to win the coveted Pirate of the Year award, to become feared and respected by people around the world for pirating.
Unfortunately, an array of failed excursions leaves him no closer to pirate legend, until he comes across a ship carrying Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who is more scheming nobody than famous scientist at this point. Darwin recognizes Captain’s beloved parrot as more than just a parrot: it’s a Dodo, long since thought to be extinct, and it’s Darwin’s ticket to fame. Conniving an array of lies about scientific fame and fortune to convince Captain to accompany him to London, Darwin gets Captain and his pet to walk straight into the lion’s den—1800s London, ruled by the murderously anti-pirate Queen Victoria, and woman of Darwin’s dreams.
This shoestring plot manages to mostly be an excuse to take the pirates and Darwin from the West Indies to London and back again and again, in a globe zigzagging adventure from the last bastion of pirate-dom to the pride of scientific enlightenment. The entire way, Captain’s crew manages to make it all into an elaborate excuse for multiple jokes and sight-gags, from the possibility of one of the crew being a woman in disguise to the merits of sharks versus draculas to the crew’s (in)ability to adopt masterful disguises and blend into any part of society at a moment’s notice. It’s a narrative that runs almost entirely on the enthusiasm of the actors involved and the richness of craft on display through the animation.
Aardman has always been known for quality stop-motion, but I feel like Pirates! is a bold new step for them in their post-Arthur Christmas adventures with other mediums. All of the foreground elements and characters are animated with the usual homey stop motion fans of the studio come to know and love, visible frame skips and exaggerated modeling and all, but the scope of the setting has been expanded through a restrained use of CG. Model ships are animated on CG oceans meant to look slightly unreal, cityscapes stretch into the distance with careful digital matte paintings, and the movie even contains several great Indiana Jones-style map travel segments with lovely 2D drawn animation. It’s an ambitious amalgam of styles, but the end result manages to make a stop motion world that doesn’t feel constrained by obvious sets or the painstaking limits of the medium. Of all their work, this is easily the best looking film they’ve made, and it’s worthy of your time for the visual craft alone.
That’s not to say that the movie’s without its other merits. When the cast is skipping along with jokes and physical comedy, it manages to be a great time. Darwin is a real standout here, with Tennant’s usual manic energy translated into a weaselly little character who has a domesticated, intelligent chimp as a butler (who communicates entirely through written cards) and wants nothing more than to have a girlfriend. He’s insufferable, but in the best, most intentional of ways. And the rest of the comedy comes across as similarly nuanced; characters regularly make poor choices and you can’t help but laugh at their feeble attempts to shortcut their way to fame and glory. In fact, the jokes are so obviously skewed subtle that the marketing for the film is probably going to really hurt it. My showing was populated almost entirely with parents and grandparents who seemed entertained and children who seemed to be completely lost in the convoluted plot and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them sight gags that fill many of the elaborate scenes.
And all that care and modest comedy really accentuates the biggest failing of The Pirates!, the action set pieces that crop up a handful of times in the movie. For a film that is so devoted to interesting characters and comfortable jokes, whenever it goes for something bigger it falls almost completely flat. In part I think it’s a problem with the animation. The characters emote incredibly well, and their movements work great for comedic timing, but they lose any sense of reality the minute they start jumping around trying to engage in action scenes. The other problem is the pacing of beats for all of those action bits. Aardman is great at making silly situations and endearingly goofy characters, but there’s very rarely any real sense of peril and none of the action has the set up and pay off in the same way the jokes do. Even a fairly good, imposing villain (Queen Victoria) manages to be completely undermined by the need to give her something impressive to do during the finale, which involves a sword fight so painstakingly constructed that it lacks any energy.
Thankfully those problems only crop up rarely, and even when they do the action scenes never so overwhelm the film that it’s not busy enough to shoot off some great lines or a gag or callback. Make no doubt about it, The Pirates! is the same character- and visually-driven comedy that Aaardman has made their name on, just with a seemingly much broader scope. It might be more Monkey Island than swashbuckler, but for the life of me I can’t think of why that would ever be considered anything but a blessing.
NOTE: Matthew Marko regularly contributes to the Screened community under the username Litrock. Please continue to look for his comments, posts in the forums and contact him under that username.
Trailer 2: The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Oh, I guess we can't make leper jokes, but it's ok to make ghost jokes? I'll have you know that some of my best friends are jokes.
Trailer 2: The Pirates! Band of Misfits
I find this trailer to be suspiciously brown for a movie about the high seas, but it looks like it'll be a fun family film regardless. I approve!
The Pirates! Band of Misfits Trailer
Aardman Animation gets back to what it's known best for: quality stop motion animation. This time, with pirates!
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