'The Pirates! Band of Misfits'
Rating: PG, for mild action, rude humor and some language
Starring: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Hugh Grant, Brendan Gleeson, Jeremy Piven, Brian Blessed
Runtime: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Bottom line: Supreme family entertainment
All animated family movies try to please both kids and parents, but no studio does it as well and as consistently as Aardman Animations.
The UK studio has carved out a distinct niche over the years with “Chicken Run” and the Wallace & Gromit, Shaun the Sheep and Creature Comforts franchises.
Aardman still works primarily in Claymation, that beloved, anachronistic stop-motion animation style that uses plasticine figures for characters. Computer-generated imagery has taken over nearly the entire world of animation, and even Aardman now has a CGI division. But Claymation continues to be the basis of the studio’s identity.
On a technical level, Aardman are the undisputed kings and queens of Claymation if we consider both quality and volume of output. (Yes, Henry Selick, director of “Coraline” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and others have done amazing work, but their releases are few and far between.)
What really sets Aardman apart from most other animation studios, though, is the writing. They blend slapstick with witty wordplay and sophisticated sight gags in a way that harkens back to the Marx Brothers.
They particularly excel at taking adult genres but making them playful and accessible for kids. “Chicken Run” pays tribute to “The Great Escape,” “Grand Illusion” and other prisoner-of-war escape movies by having a group of chickens attempt an escape from a farm.
“Wallace & Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit” is an homage to classic Universal Pictures horror films like “Frankenstein,” “Dracula” and “Werewolf of London,” only the Were-Rabbit devours vegetables rather than human flesh.
With “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” co-directors Peter Lord (one of the original founders of Aardman and the director of “Chicken Run”) and Jeff Newitt bring the studio’s trademark charm to the pirate adventure movie.
A boisterous yet blundering pirate captain named, ahem, Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) wants desperately to win the Pirate of the Year Award. He has tried and failed many times, largely because he can’t match his rivals, Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) and Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry).
To win this time, he’ll need the help of his misfit crew, which includes Captain’s second in command, The Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman), The Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin), The Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen) and The Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens (Al Roker).
Through a series of turns, Pirate Captain ends up enlisting the help of Charles Darwin (David Tennant) and battling Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), who hides some surprising things under her dowdy dress.
The movie has great fun spoofing those two historical figures as well as the mythology of Victorian London.
Kiddie fare, both in movies and television shows, too often condescends to its audience with spoonfed storylines, on-the-nose dialogue and nonstop toilet humor.
Aardman deserves huge kudos for avoiding these traps. If anything, their movies tend to challenge their young viewers while also making them laugh.
As a film geek and father, I love the way Aardman can serve as a gateway to classic films. Children are likely to recognize that “The Pirates,” just like “Curse of the Were-Rabbit” and “Chicken Run,” is referencing older films, even if they don’t yet know what those films are. This provides an opportunity to talk about where those references came from. It makes kids curious about some of those great classics that are now part of our cultural vocabulary.
This is a rather academic perspective, I admit, but the genius of Aardman’s work is that it creates such a dense tapestry of cultural memes without ever undermining the sheer fun of watching their movies.
Aardman animators are among the few people in this world capable of creating a movie that allows us to both giggle innocently and ponder intellectually.
They’ve done it again with “The Pirates! Band of Misfits.”
Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.