With the voices of Hugh Grant, Salma Hayek, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, Jeremy Piven. Written by Gideon Defoe. Directed by Peter Lord, Jeff Newitt. Rated PG (for mild action, rude humor and some language). 88 minutes.
When it comes to animation, it really pays to note which company is responsible for the film. In the US, the fact that Pixar has produced a film is almost always a guarantee of not only good animation, but solid writing and characterization. In England, the animation house that promises quirky characters, engagingly silly plots, and delightful witty dialogue is Aardman Animations. Their credits include the Wallace and Gromit movies, “Shaun the Sheep,” “Arthur Christmas,” “Flushed Away,” and “Chicken Run.”
THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS is a wonderful send-up of countless pirate movies, but can still be fully appreciated by someone who is not seen a single one. It’s not a parody of the genre so much as a comic entry in it. One quickly gets caught up in the misadventures of this motley crew.
The Pirate Captain (voice of Hugh Grant) is convinced this is the year he will be named the Pirate of the Year, even though his haul of booty is decidedly meager. By chance, he comes across the scientist Charles Darwin (David Tennant) who believes that the captain’s pet bird is, in fact, a living example of what was thought to be an extinct species and, thus, worth a fortune. If you think you know what happens next you’ll be surprised. Darwin – and his chimp’s – attempt to steal the rare dodo and the captain’s attempt to pass himself off as a renowned scientist are only the beginning of the strange twists in store here.
The pleasure of the Aardman films is their willingness to be odd. Whether its chickens thinking they can learn to fly or a dog with more sense than his master, this is inspired silliness. Here we have pirates who not only compete for the pirate equivalent of the Oscar, but a band of supposed cutthroats whose highlight is not plundering other ships but “ham night,” when the captain serves a big ham. Indeed, some of the most inspired nonsense is understated as with the pirate who is obviously a girl wearing a fake beard, but for whom we never get an explanation as to why she’s doing it or why no one else can see through her absurd disguise.
The downside is that in spite of a notable voice cast, you probably won’t recognize most of the voices during the movie. Unlike DreamWorks Animation, which showcases its voice casts, here the voices serve the characters rather than vice versa. Thus Jeremy Piven and Salma Hayek may play rival pirates, but you probably won’t notice that until the closing credits. Other notables include Al Roker, David Tennant, Anton Yelchin, and Brendan Gleeson. Even Hugh Grant in the lead doesn’t stand out.
That doesn’t mean he fails to do the job. He’s actually wonderfully amusing as the Pirate Captain. It’s just that you’re more likely to sit there and go, “Where have I heard him before?” rather than recognize his voice.
“The Pirates! Band of Misfits” is an entertaining piece of animated nonsense that shouldn’t be left to just the kids. They’ll have a good time, but so will the adults who take them… or go by themselves.***
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.