Pay no attention to the generic, dumbed-down-for-Americans title or the trailers that offer the flimsy story of a captain angling for the Pirate of the Year award. Pirates! Band of Misfits (known as The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists) is the latest sublime adventure from the endlessly mischievous gang at Aardman Animation, once again beautifully animated with stop-motion and crammed so tightly full of jokes and pratfalls that a dead simple plot is pretty much all there's room for. The goofy energy ought to appeal to the silly side of every age group, but with Charles Darwin and Queen Victoria as major characters and cameos from The Elephant Man and Jane Austen, there's also surprising amount of historical texture for something so nutty.
Even the choices of voice actors feel just oddball enough to be perfect, starting with dapper Hugh Grant as the luxuriant-bearded, not particularly successful Pirate Captain, then extending to Martin Freeman as his first mate (the one character who looks exactly like his human counterpart), David Tennant as Darwin, Jeremy Piven as the smug pirate Black Bellamy, and Imelda Staunton as a very energetic, pirate-hating Queen Victoria. We meet The Pirate Captain when he and his crew roll into Blood Island with the hopes of entering the Pirate of the Year competition, only to be shamed by the richer, showier, smack-talking pirates like Bellamy and the shapely Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek). On a mission to steal enough booty to win the prize, The Pirate Captain accidentally winds up on board the Beagle with Darwin, who discovers the Captain's portly parrot Polly isn't a parrot at all, but the last living dodo.
Darwin, who's motivated as much by science as a desire to finally get a girlfriend, convinces the pirates to bring Polly to a scientific exhibit in London, where they inevitably wind up in the crosshairs of Queen Victoria, who hates pirates so much she's on a sign warning them away at the entrance to the Thames. Adventure and silliness ensues, along with a few lessons to learn but more importantly endless, endless jokes and sight gags and tossed-off asides that constantly surprise. Pay attention to the signage in the aptly named Dodgy Alley in London, or the many different reactions of all the shocked scientists at the exhibition, or the weird artifacts in Darwin's house-- as always, the attention to detail is astonishing, and the varying elaborate settings in Pirates! allow the Aardman team to show off in nearly every scene.
And because all of these worlds are real, every character and setting actually built by hand on a studio stage, the obligatory 3D feels valuable here, further plunging you into this detailed world and allowing for the silly sight gags-- like an extra-special pirate flag with googly eyes-- to pop a little more. Happily, the 3D is the only evidence that Aardman is bowing to the tide of the times, and with company co-founder Peter Lord in the director's chair, Pirates! feels perfectly of a piece with everything else the studio has made-- daffy, self-assured, willing to try pretty much anything, and utterly unique.
Reviewed By: Katey Rich