By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Exactly how much wind is left in the sails of pirate movies after Capt. Jack Sparrow is an issue with The Pirates! Band of Misfits. After all, there are only so many ways to buckle a swash, or shiver timbers. When Veggie Tales beats you to an idea for an animated movie, you know rough waters lie ahead.
The stop motion masters of Aardman Animations took the challenge and mostly meet it, with its unique style still better suited to animals seeming human than humans acting silly. Imagine Wallace without his trusty dog Gromit, or Chicken Run without chickens to know the value of critter nature to Aardman's humor. The Pirates! Band of Misfits might be funnier if the pirates were a different species than Homo sapien.
But that's the way Gideon Defoe wrote them in a children's book series, and since he did the screenplay adaptation that's the way they stay. Yet the movie's memorable moments involve a silently expressive dodo bird and "man-panzee," stealing the show from human caricatures acting silly.
The busy plot involves the delusions of Pirate Captain (voice of Hugh Grant) to win the coveted Pirate of the Year award. His crew is less than ship-shape, and his ship is in no shape to compete with the likes of Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek). The skipper is a poor judge of pillaging victims, boarding the unprofitable ships of lepers, nudists and an elementary school field trip. His booty simply isn't big enough to compete.
One invasion leads to meeting scientist Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who recognizes Pirate Captain's unusually plump parrot Polly as the last living dodo bird. Along with Mr. Bobo — a hyper-domesticated chimp "speaking" with all-occasion index cards — Darwin plots to steal Polly, win the Scientist of the Year prize and impress the woman of his dreams, the rotund pirate-phobe Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton).
It's a frantic quest, from Blood Island to foggy London, with a distinctly British drollness to each gag, sight or spoken. The Pirates! Band of Misfits tosses in enough Pythonesque non sequiturs for grownups to feel included, and ridiculous anachronisms like Pirate King moonwalking to keep kids entertained. The 3-D format isn't necessary, except for animation buffs, to fully appreciate Aardman's extraordinary detail in making things move, one painstaking frame at a time.
It's good to see Aardman still in the animation game, after a 2005 fire at its studio in England and a failed alliance with DreamWorks. But after only polite respect for Arthur Christmas and now The Pirates! Band of Misfits, new partners at Sony should suggest Aardman's return to the were-rabbits and docu-zoo style that won Oscars. More dodo and Mr. Bobo, and less of those pesky humans.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.