In 1837, a young, ambitious Charles Darwin was writing in his journal aboard the HMS Beagle when the vessel was waylaid by pirates. But what caught his attention was the feathery mascot accompanying the posse of pillagers: a dodo bird, thought at the time to be extinct for more than 150 years. In this rare specimen, Darwin envisioned the pathway to scientific fame for himself — and the pirate captain saw the opportunity for vast riches.
OK, so none of that actually happened. But that's the loopy premise of The Pirates! Band of Misfits, the latest stop-motion animation feature from Aardman Animations, the British studio best known for Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run.
Based on a series of tongue-in-cheek novels from Gideon Defoe, which feature a particularly inept band of buccaneers having adventures with caricatured historical and literary figures, Pirates is just what audiences have come to expect from Aardman: smart, adventure-driven comedy with all-ages appeal and an affinity for clever sight gags.
The first scene involving the pirates themselves is a succinct introduction to what kind of humor is in store: A heated argument is going on below deck about just what the best thing about being a pirate is. Is it the looting or the cutlasses? Or maybe the exotic diseases?
The squabble is interrupted by the Pirate Captain — Hugh Grant, voicing a character whose name literally is "Pirate Captain" — who suggests they're all wrong, and launches into a musical tribute to both piracy and the fact that it's "Ham Night" aboard the ship.
In short, these pirates are more in love with the idea of being pirates than they are any good at piracy, and the humor here is absurd and self-aware in the best tradition of British comedy.
The reason the pirates run across Darwin (David Tennant) is Pirate Captain's drive to win an annual Pirate of the Year award. The competition would be formidable even for a talented pirate, but as noted, Captain is better at maintaining his luxuriant beard than at collecting booty. His hapless attempts to make a last-minute push for loot find him targeting vessels like Darwin's — those without much in the way of bullion onboard.
Once Darwin spies "Polly" the Dodo, though — Pirate Captain thinks she's just a very large parrot — he strikes a deal for his life to help Captain collect untold riches by exploiting the discovery of the supposedly extinct species. The only catch? It means docking in a London where the climate toward pirates is decidedly hostile, thanks to a crusade to scour the seas of them led by none other than Her Majesty Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton).
All of which may sound almost historically educational, but isn't any more so than, say, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. The historical figures here bear only passing similarities to their real-life analogs: The movie's Darwin is repellently ambitious and as obsessed with his lack of luck with the ladies as he is with the origin of the species, while this Victoria has all the royal composure of a drill sergeant.
Co-director and Aardman founder Peter Lord sticks close to the signature style that has defined the studio for years. The characters are the familiar rounded figurines featuring bulbous eyes and wide, toothy grins. Each frame is packed with detail, with just as many jokes occurring in the background as upfront, a quality that has always rewarded repeated viewings of their work.
And fans of the popular Aardman device of speechless animals that are often more insightful than their human counterparts will particularly enjoy Mr. Bobo, a highly trained chimp (or "manpanzee") whom Darwin employs as his assistant (much as Wallace treats Gromit in Nick Park's acclaimed films), and who communicates entirely with one-word flash cards.
While there are a few pockets of humor that target the adults in the audience a little too specifically — a slightly too-predictable Oscar parody at the Pirate of the Year awards, for instance — for the most part, Pirates succeeds at maintaining equal appeal for both young and old. Barely a moment goes by without a well-orchestrated joke (or three), and it's paced as briskly as a clipper in front of a stiff tailwind.