From Aardman and Sony Pictures Animation comes this delightful tale about the Pirate Captain and his rag tag bunch of buccaneers. Based on The Pirates! book series by Gideon Defoe, Band of Misfits is a clever, charming and hysterical adventure, very much in the spirit of Wallace and Grommit and Chicken Run and is directed by pioneer of the animation world and Aardman co-founder Peter Lord. Lord, takes his first directing job since his smash hit Chicken Run in 2000. Among the high caliber voice talent aboard are Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Brendan Gleeson, David Tenant and more and add layers of depth to Lord’s latest stop-motion animated film. A wonderful blend of signature Aardman animation, wit and charm this is a return to form for the studio.
The Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) is on his annual quest to claim the coveted ‘Pirate of the Year Award’. Year after year his efforts turn to disappointment as he is edged out by his rivals Black Bellamy and Cutlass Liz. Yet try and try again Pirate Captain doesn’t know defeat and this time he sets sail for a prize that promises to be his biggest adventure yet and one which will take him and his crew from the shores of Blood Island to the foggy streets of Victorian London. Aardman animation is known for the Wallace and Gromit shorts/feature films but sometimes filmmakers struggle stretching a story (kid film or otherwise) meant to be told in 22 minutes into an 80 or 90 minute feature. Rest assured that Lord capably enhances Gideon Defoe’s source material into something that is breezy but also has some heft. The best storytellers can capture kids and entertain adults at the same time and like we saw last year with Arthur Christmas, Peter Lord and the crew at Aardman have done it again.
As the the leader of the pirates, named appropriately, if simply, Pirate Captain, Hugh Grant disappears into the role. He’s got a knack for comedy and easily makes his lines, even the briefest ones, come across both sweet and very very funny. Along the way the Captain matches wits and cutlasses with his Pirate competition. In this case, the scourges of the sea who are voiced quite brilliantly by Jeremy Piven, Selma Hayek even Brian Blessed. But with so much plundering to be done, their characters get very little screen time. No matter as this film is about the Captain and his band of buccaneers really. Of the A-list cast, it’s the crew that really compliments Hugh Grant’s pie in the sky style of pirating and even as voice actors there’s great chemistry between then. Their level of devotion to Pitate Captain makes Pirates! it all so much fun to watch. He thins he’s so smart he can use his wits and cunning smarts to get himself and the pirates out of any mess they find themselves in. It’s hysterical to see just how many hair-brained schemes they’ll go along with. Though he ties to appear tough, he’s a rather humble fellow who, deep down, cares more about his crew and his beloved pet Polly (a dodo he thinks is an overweight parrot) than he does finding treasure.
Though it may seem like he and the cast do the heavy lifting lending their voices to these cute characters, really they’ve got the easy job. It’s the animation that make his and the cast’s lines and jokes just sing. The painstaking animation is seamless and that’s the real testament to Lord and company’s work. In short is spectacular to look at, yet the real marvel is not the eye-popping sequences and fun, but the idea that this is all stop-motion animation. So much effort goes into things that you may not even take notice of. The logistics required to pull this off are simply astounding (fyi: it takes about a week to get just 6 seconds of usable footage).
The story builds to show 3 overlapping plots which take us on a fun filled ride that even involves historical characters like Charles Darwin and Queen Elizabeth. But this is not a history lesson in the least because what’s a Pirate movie without some adventure right? Well Pirates! has it in spades…or doubloons rather. Chase sequences, action pieces etc, rightly so, are exciting and fun with all sorts of eye candy to take in. Even travelling on the ship is fun as it recalls the globetrotting style of Indiana Jones. Yet it’s made a little more fun as Aardman give it flair that borders on Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animation even down to its inventive sight gags. Also Theodore Shapiro adds a modern feel to the film with his score. He blends some period-piece sounding music with modern songs similar to what was done with the Shrek series. It may seem like an odd mix but like the Pirates themselves, there’s enough ragtag diversity juxtaposed that it too just works.
Beyond Pirate Captain’s style and swagger is his crew who are just as intricately detailed and have such personality, even if they don’t get a whole lot if speaking or screentime. The character’s designs suit the personality of the voice actor as well as the character him/herself. For example, even something possibly overlooked like the Albino pirate’s clothes; look closely, you’ll notice that his wardrobe is bleached out and de-saturated. That’s the level of detail that Lord and Aardman puts into their characters. There’s incredible effort and design in what is, on the surface, a “kids movie”. In fact, it is so amazing to look at that you could easily freeze frame any scene from the film and hang it on your wall as art.
Detail is crammed into every frame and even the animals have equal if not sometimes greater character than their human counterparts. Animation is built on subtly, and the team at Aardman go to extremes to make everything seem fluid and almost effortless. As with any light-hearted kids movie, the real magic is that they make it look so easy. The fun aboard this ship of Misfits is delightful and entirely charming. Yet there’s a wit combined with time tested element that are just pain funny like sight gags (who thought a monkey with cue cards would be that hysterical?) and heavy doses of slapstick. Aardman really knows their medium extremely well and it shows. The Pirates! Band of Misfits is an adventure not to be missed. Peter Lord has taken Aardman to new heights in this film and delivers a rousing tale that is going to be fun to watch again and again and again.