From the sophisticated merriment of “Wallace and Gromit” to the witty adventures of “Chicken Run” and “Arthur Christmas,” the British Aardman Studios remains one of the most effortlessly likable brands in animation today. And if their latest blend of dry humor and audacious action in “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” isn’t up to the level of their very best, it’s still a pleasurable diversion for all ages.
Directed by Peter Lord (who co-founded Aardman with “Wallace and Gromit” creator Nick Park) and adapted by Gideon Defoe from his own “Pirates!” series of humor books, the film follows endearingly ineffectual Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) on a quest to be named Pirate of the Year. That’s a tall order for a man so low on the “most wanted” list that the bounty on his head is a mere twelve doubloons (plus a free pen). The ragtag crew under the Captain’s command includes right-hand man Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman), timid and scrawny Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin), Albert Nobbs-ish Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen) and briefly seen Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson). Not exactly a team ready to raise hell on the high seas.
Not many films aimed at kids would also make room for radically bastardized versions of historical figures Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) and Charles Darwin (David Tennant) as prominent supporting characters, but Defoe’s irreverent source material wasn’t really intended for children to begin with -- it simply finds a kindred creative spirit in the Aardman team. Overflowing with Monty Python-style absurdist humor and Aardman’s trademark affinity for clever puns and sly sight gags, “Pirates!” has enough laughs to please adults looking for a family-friendly movie option. As usual with Aardman, you’ll want to keep an eye on all corners of the screen to catch jokes tucked away in every nook and cranny. (The end credits also provide a second chance to appreciate the various amusing signs and objects that pop up throughout the film.)
The laidback funny-first approach may actually be more jarring for kids reared on the boisterous tendencies of contemporary animation. In some ways “Pirates!” is as much of a gently idiosyncratic entry in the cartoon marketplace as last summer’s “Winnie the Pooh” or winter’s “The Secret World of Arrietty.” Then again, “Pirates!” does have Darwin’s kid-friendly Man-panzee servant who communicates in a series of title cards a la Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and eventually works up to a super-sized action climax involving sea creatures, airships, explosions and generally wacky shenanigans.
The frantic third act is where “Pirates!” really starts to sink, attempting to tighten up its loosey-goosey narrative and give the Pirate Captain some straight up obstacles and hero moments. In the studio’s best features, including the full-length “Wallace,” “Chicken” and “Arthur,” the distinctive characters, smart humor and cheeky action elements mix seamlessly. Here, not so much.
“Pirates!” does boast a winning center in Pirate Captain, voiced by Grant in his most spirited screen turn since “About a Boy.” Deepening his voice but doing little to mask his singular delivery, Grant makes Captain a loveable buffoon who knows what a pirate is supposed to do but doesn’t have the first clue about making it happen.
Tennant stands out among the impressive but underutilized supporting cast as self-important dork Darwin -- the filmmakers have fun treating the still-controversial historical figure as little more than a loathsome loser looking to score with the ladies. Salma Hayek and Jeremy Piven are also in the voice cast as two of Captain’s key rivals in the Pirate of the Year competition, but their presence is just further evidence that the film has more ideas than it knows how to handle.
Still, there’s something comforting in the hand-crafted appeal of Aardman’s stop-motion animation, given an extra visual boost here by CGI effects to add scope and depth to the high seas and period London settings. Whatever its shortcomings in the story department, “Pirates!” maintains an all-important look of love.
"The Pirates! Band of Misfits" opens in theaters April 27