These days the animation movie genre is dominated by only two studios: Pixar and DreamWorks. It’s not to say that these movies are bad. With the exception of last year’s “Car’s 2” Pixar has made some of the greatest animated movies around. However, once in a while it’s nice to see a good quality animated movie come from an outside studio and another country.
Earlier this year there was the graceful and serene “The Secret World of Arrietty” from the famed Studio Ghibli in Japan, which brought back beautiful, hand drawn and painted animation. And now we have “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” from Aardman Entertainment in The United Kingdom, bringing back their traditional charming style of stop motion animation.
It’s a shame that this method of animation isn’t used more often. As great as the computer animated films from Pixar and DreamWorks are, they all look identical for the most part in terms of art. When it’s used (Aardman’s own movies like “Chicken Run,” or more recently, Wes Anderson’s quirky “Fantastic Mr. Fox”) it provides a completely unique looking world. We’re looking at real objects made by hand as opposed to being drawn on a computer.
Even though computer animation might look more realistic, there’s something special about seeing Claymation figurines in action. It evokes a particular sense of creativity and imagination, the kind that we had when we were young children at home playing with dolls or action figures. When these kinds of movies come around, they’re always refreshing to look at.
Directed by Aardman regulars Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt, the movie takes us into the high-risk world of classic swashbuckling piracy; rum, treasure, attacking of ships, etc. There’s a place called Blood Island, where Pirates from all over come to brag about their nautical successes. One of those pirates is The Ship Captain (Hugh Grant), although he’s not exactly bragging. For years he’s been humiliated for being a sub par pirate, and even though he has a devoted crew he can’t quite catch a break. After many failed attempts, he decides to take on the best pirates--in a competition to see who can pillage the most booty—and win the coveted Pirate of the Year Award.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, why pirates? Haven’t we seen enough of them in movies? And it’s true; a lot of the humor in the movie is the obvious pirate themed gags, wooden legs, plank walking, and the fact that one of the crewmembers is a man dressed up as a woman.
But by using a typical pirate movie set up and characters screenwriter Gideon Dafoe is able to craft an interesting and nutty story. One involving a rather petty and pathetic Charles Darwin (David Tennant) who notices that The Captain’s prized “parrot” Polly is actually a rare bird thought to be extinct and worth a lot of money, as well as a maniacal Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) who hates pirates and has an appetite for rare animals.
The best humor in the movie comes from the subtle clever jokes that take you a little while to get. For example, early on we find out that the only award that The Captain has won was one for “The Most Interesting Story About a Squid…” and he got second place. Lord and Newitt don’t just appeal to their guaranteed young child demographic, they don’t sell out for easy childish gags but instead incorporate a lot of inside humor that adults will find funny.
On a purely technical side, the animation quality in “Pirates” is top notch. In fact since the studio’s last movie, “Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were Rabbit” the stop motion has gotten even better. The amount of detail that has gone into all the sets and character designs--right down to the very last ridge on the Ship Captain’s beard--is incredible. At the same time, you can still spot a distinction in the design of “Pirates!” that’s in the past movies. No matter what kind of characters or environments there are, there’s a clear style, like the wide-eyed expressions and toothy grins of the characters.
“The Pirates!” is far from perfect. In terms of story and characters, compared to Aardman’s past successes like the classic “Chicken Run” or the near masterpiece “Wallace and Grommit,” the premise of “Pirates” isn’t nearly as inspired. More so, the characters in both “Chicken” and “Wallace” are far more genuine and well developed. In the new movie, The Ship Captain is the only character who evolves while most of the supporting cast-- like the pirate crew-- are funny but not as fully realized as they should be. Even so, “Pirates” is solid animated entertainment and a nice break from Pixar and DreamWorks. On top of that it’s the best pirate themed movie to come out in a while.