By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS ) — It’s a funny high-seas adventure, a nonsensical piratical quirkfest. And veddy, veddy British.
It’s The Pirates! Bands of Misfits (released in the United Kingdom as The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists), a vibrant, absurdist, inventive 3-D stop-motion animated comedy in the uniquely stylized mode of Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit: the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Flushed Away, and Arthur Christmas.
It’s based on the first two books in the Gideon Defoe series, “The Pirates!”: The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists and The Pirates! in an Adventure with Whaling.
A crew of amateur pirates led by the self-doubting and self-deprecating Pirate Captain, voiced by Hugh Grant (his first animated voiceover gig), attempts to plunder ships — even though, if truth be told, he just isn’t very good at living a plunderful life.
It’s not that he doesn’t want to be dastardly; it’s just that he’s not suited to the task.
Which is why it’s difficult if not impossible for him to steal enough gold and booty to win the 19th-Century Pirate of the Year award, which he’s been coveting for twenty years.
While the captain’s colorful crew includes such characters as The Pirate with a Scarf, a Pirate with Prosthetics, the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate, and an Albino Pirate, his main rivals for the cherished award are Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), who bring more to the infamy table than he does.
After failing at raids against several ships — a plague boat, a ghost ship, and a nudist boat — they hijack the Beagle and encounter none other than the evolved Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who calmly informs them as he’s about to walk the plank that the pirate crew’s parrot is not actually a parrot but the last living dodo, a species thought to be extinct.
So the pirates, disguised as scientists (they fancy themselves masters of disguise, with Girl Scouts as one of their specialties), accompany Darwin and his sidekick chimpanzee, Mr. Bobo (who manages to provide his own subtitles), to the foggy streets of London, where Darwin hopes to snag the prestigious Best Scientific Discovery award, to introduce Polly to the Royal Society.
But Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), who hates pirates with a vengeance (her royal crest even states, “I hate Pirates”), unmasks them.
In return for a pardon and a large gold treasure, the Pirate Captain leaves Polly with the Queen and attends the Pirate of the Year competition, but is disqualified and sent away when it is discovered that he has been pardoned.
To make matters worse, the crew of buccaneers deserts him when they find out that he has sold Polly.
When the Pirate Captain returns to London yet again to save Polly, he is reunited with Darwin. What they find out is that the queen is planning to eat Polly, among other rare animals, at a secret meeting with other heads of state on the QV1, her flagship.
So the Pirate Captain and Darwin hijack a Royal Society airship and fly to the QV1, in hopes of thwarting the queen’s plan.
Peter Lord, who also directed the wonderful Chicken Run in 2000, co-directed with Jeff Newitt. They’re painstaking about the visual details and generous with visual gags and delightful slapstick bits in this CG-enhanced claymation charmer.
And while this is decidedly a children’s vehicle, there are plenty of sly asides, historical references, and background nuances for viewers “of age” as well.
Gideon’s adaptation of his own books is both goofy and literate, a pleasant diversion that even includes occasional innuendo. It’s not big belly laughs as much as cheerful chuckles that the screenplay is after. And they come pretty much nonstop.
So we’ll hijack 3 stars out of 4 for the cleverly, eccentrically, enjoyably animated kidflick, The Pirates! Band of Misfits.
Swashbuckling may never be the same. Parrots either.