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Movie review: 'The Pirates! Band of Misfits' plunder and please

Aardman Animations' stop-motion film offers an absurd, Monty Python-type premise and delivers a clever, delightful story. It's quite a booty.

April 27, 2012|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • The Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) with Polly in "The Pirates! Band of Misfits."
The Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) with Polly in "The Pirates!… (Aardman Animations / Sony…)

It's not often noted in the history books, but Queen Victoria simply couldn't stand pirates. In fact, the words "I Hate Pirates" are prominently carved on the royal crest. You could look it up.

Well, actually, you can't, because the wacky folks at Aardman Animations made it up as a key plot point of their delightful"The Pirates! Band of Misfits,"a clever piece of business that is a complete pleasure to experience.

Based on a novel by Gideon Defoe, who also wrote the screenplay, "Pirates" follows the exploits, such as they are, of Pirate Captain (wonderfully voiced by Hugh Grant), perhaps not the sharpest cutlass in the Caribbean but a cheerful sort much beloved by his men. When he says, "it's only impossible if you stop to think about it," the captain is as good as his word.

As directed by Peter Lord (who co-directed the gleeful "Chicken Run"), "Pirates" creates a sense of fun that feels hand-made rather than machine manufactured. This comes not only from its absurd, Monty Python-esque scenario but also from the physical nature of the stop-motion animation process Aardman specializes in.

Though CGI is used around the edges, most of this film is made, as "King Kong" and Aardman's own Oscar-winning "Wallace and Gromit" films were before it, in a time-honored method where physical objects are manipulated literally frame by frame to give the illusion of movement.

Stop-motion is so labor intensive it took the filmmakers a full 18 months to film a key scene in a piratical pub. The gang's trusty ship is so tangible it weighs 770 pounds and the Aardman team used 220,000 tiny props and 250 puppets to bring the world of circa 1837 buccaneers to life.

All this real-world physicality offers a welcome counterweight to a story that is silliness itself, but silliness conveyed with such energy and panache that finding the Elephant Man and Rubik's Cube, not to mention the legendary queen herself, in the same scenario seems only natural.

When we first meet the pirates they're engaged in a spirited discussion of what's best about being a buccaneer. Some say it's the looting, others say it's the cutlasses, but the captain, who is fond of his creature comforts (not to mention his luxuriant beard) votes for Ham Night.

Loyally supported by his No. 2 (Martin Freeman), who understands that saving the chief from himself is a full-time job, the captain has only one lack in his life: He's never won the coveted Pirate of the Year honor, though not for lack of trying.

Nothing daunted, Pirate Captain heads to Blood Island to fill out the required entry form, trying to forget that the only thing he's ever won is a ribbon for Best Anecdote About a Squid.

The captain's self-confidence takes a body blow, however, when he meets his main rivals, including Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), definitely as deadly as she is beautiful, and perennial winner Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), who makes a whale-assisted entrance that is the last word in impressiveness.

Understandably disheartened about his contest prospects, Pirate Captain throws himself into his work with renewed vigor but hits a streak of bad luck that gets worse when he captures a young scientist named Charles Darwin (David Tennant). Yes, that Charles Darwin.

About to be made to walk the plank, Darwin suddenly notices something peculiar about the captain's beloved parrot Polly. With his own nefarious aims in mind, Darwin, or Chuck as the captain takes to calling him, convinces the credulous pirate that taking this strange bird to London — and risking the wrath of the pirate-phobic queen, thrillingly voiced by Imelda Staunton — will make him a wealthy man. As if.

The twists and turns of the "Pirates" plot are many, but hanging on for the duration is a pleasure. The visual treats are many, including random signage ("Live Sports: Urchin Throwing, Cockney Baiting" reads one) and a clever riff on movie maps that illustrate nautical progress.

The film even has an especially eclectic soundtrack that finds room for the Clash's "London Calling," Desmond Dekker's singing "You Can Get It if You Really Want" and Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra." And the 3-D the film is shot in actually enhances the experience. If we're living in a golden age of animation — and we are — the folks at Aardman are a key reason why.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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