Pirates are right up there with vampires, werewolves and people saying “LOL” out loud on the list of Played-Out Pop Culture Phenomena, but leave it to the folks at Aardman Animation to find the remaining reservoirs of fun in a bunch of seafaring scalawags. Whether you’re besotted with peglegs or sick to death of skulls and crossbones, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself enchanted by “The Pirates! Band of Misfits.”
Fans of previous Aardman ventures like the "Wallace and Gromit" films will recognize many of the studio’s trademark laugh magnets — droll, non-talking animals and those wide, clenched-teeth smiles that last just a second too long — but “The Pirates” feels like a technological step forward, not only in the film’s densely-populated world (of stop-motion animated figures) but also in the rolling waves of the ocean. This movie does for water what first-wave CGI features like “Shrek” did for fur and feathers.
The rollicking plot follows the good-natured but somewhat dim Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant), who’s not particularly good at pillage and mayhem but makes up for it with stirring sea shanties and a very popular weekly Ham Night aboard ship. He wants desperately to win the coveted Pirate of the Year trophy, so he starts attacking boats, only to find himself face-to-face with lepers, schoolchildren and ghosts, none of whom are carrying much gold.
There’s not much money to be found aboard the HMS Beagle either, but passenger Charles Darwin (David Tennant) realizes that the Captain’s prized pet Polly isn’t a chubby parrot but rather the last surviving Dodo bird. Darwin convinces the Captain to come with him to London to present the creature — and to be showered with riches — over the objections of the Captain’s Number Two (Martin Freeman), who worries that returning to England will put the crew at risk of arrest by the virulently pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton).
The usual kid-movie messages about friendship and loyalty get trotted out, but it’s a testament to screenwriter Gideon DeFoe (adapting his children’s book “The Pirates! An Adventure with Scientists”) that the moral of the story never overcomes the jokes. And the jokes are plentiful here, from the “strangely curvaceous” pirate (Ashley Jensen) who’s clearly a lady in a fake beard to the Captain and his crew’s propensity for ridiculous disguises (as scientists, Girl Scouts, etc.) to references to Jane Austen and the Elephant Man that will soar far over kids’ heads.
The voice cast is terrific — Grant hasn’t been this dryly funny in ages — but if there’s a downside to “Pirates,” it’s that things get a bit too frantic by the end. They might have cut back on one set piece, one frenzied chase, to let the movie breathe a little.
But even if it’s not as perfectly paced as, say, Aardman’s recent “Arthur Christmas,” “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” gives pop-culture pirates a snazzy new eye-patch to wear on the high seas.