Stars: (Voices of) Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant, Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, Lenny Henry and Brian Blessed.
Writer: Gideon Defoe
Directors: Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt.
With its star-heavy voice-cast and superlative production standard working far too hard to enliven its barely-serviceable plotting, the awkwardly-titled The Pirates! Band of Misfits is Aardman Animation’s walk on Dreamwork’s side of the animation street. In this overly-corporatized world of modern animation, marquee value and marketable properties (think early SKG efforts like Road to El Dorado and A Shark’s Tale) seem far more important than charm, wit and sentiment. Though aspiring to be a cinematic treasure, Pirates is a patchy endeavour that falls several dubloons short of greatness.
Co-directors Peter Lord’s and Jeff Newitt’s soggy adventure proudly boasts such claims as “Hugh Grant’s first animated film” (he plays the ego-centric, not-very-interesting Pirate Captain). But what it doesn’t boast of is the sort of zingy comedic timing and resonant emotion that highlighted the best of Aardman’s catalogue, such as Chicken Run and the Wallace and Gromit shorts. The shortest leap to make as to why this would be so is the absence of Nick Park, the 4-time Oscar winner who put Aardman on the map with those classic works.
Grant’s Pirate Captain wants to win the annual Pirate of the Year award, breaking a losing streak that has made him the laughing stock of the high seas. His crew (amongst them first-mate and moral compass Martin Freeman, lady-in-disguise Ashley Jensen, albino Russell Toovey and non-parrot, Polly) are loyal to the last cutlass, but The Captain’s selfish ambition gets the better of his judgement when he meets a whiny Charles Darwin (David Tennant). The desperate scientist promises untold fame if he is allowed to present Polly (in actuality, the last of the near-extinct dodo breed) to London’s scientific elite. The trip to London puts The Captain and his crew in direct conflict with a pirate-hating, ninja-kicking Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) and all but brings about the end of the tight-knit rag-tag group.
There is no denying the ambitious vision that has led to some gorgeously-realized stop-motion animation work; the technical skill on display is not in question nor will ever be with an Aardman work.
The pertinent issue is that, other than the plumiest of public school toffs who might wander into this film on a weekend home from boarding school, what kid will be enthralled by the antics of a joyless Pirate (compared to Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, our protagonist is positively inert); some whinger called Charles Darwin (the non-stop ‘evolution’ gags are certainly lost on the target audience); and, a needlessly nasty monarch (given the Kate & Will-led resurgence in popularity for the House of Windsor, a villainous queen seems an odd choice).
Lord and Newitt go the ‘bigger is funnier’ route with the climax, but their adventure comedy tale – drearily laughless for long passages – peters out listlessly. Some end-credit shenanigans raise a smirk, but it is likely you will feel plundered by Pirates. At best a picturesque pantomime, it is ultimately a plodding pastiche that represents a whole lot of effort for very little return.