Jan Švankmajer’s stop-motion looks angry, rough, and primal; Henry Selick’s is so polished and smooth that it resembles CGI. But Aardman Animations’ stop-motion releases like the Wallace & Gromit shorts, Chicken Run, and Shaun The Sheep are instantly recognizable for the almost exaggerated sense that every aspect of the production has been formed by hand, with the caricatured distortions of children’s drawings mixed with the fussy craft of a crocheted doily. That fussiness also extends to the studio’s house brand of humor, a precisely tuned blend of maiden-aunt primness and broad, goofy absurdism.
All these familiar flavors are again front and center in The Pirates! Band Of Misfits, the feature that returns Aardman to theatrical stop-motion after the CGI of Arthur Christmas and Flushed Away. It also returns Aardman co-founder Peter Lord to the director’s chair for the first time since 2000’s Chicken Run. But it doesn’t feel like a return to form—or a new direction, though it’s Aardman’s first book-to-film adaptation, Hugh Grant’s first animated film, and the studio’s maiden foray into 3-D stop-motion. It still feels like a comfortable visit with an old friend.
Gideon Defoe scripted from his own series-launching comedic book The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists, about the adventures of a hapless group of pirates known only by names like The Pirate With The Scarf, The Pirate With Gout, and in the case of their leader, The Pirate Captain. The openly ridiculous plot has The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) scheming to win the Pirate Of The Year competition, even though he’s a terrible pirate, far outclassed by rivals voiced by Jeremy Piven and Salma Hayek. When a typical gaffe has him invading the Beagle and trying to rob Charles Darwin (David Tennant), he learns that his beloved “parrot” Polly is actually a dodo bird. Hungry for fame and the approval of rare-animal collector Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), Darwin deceives the Captain and his crew into believing they can get enough booty to win the pirate competition by entering Polly in a science fair. So the pirates journey to London in cheerful, blinkered defiance of the Queen, a hotheaded schemer whose royal crest reads simply “I hate pirates.”
What follows is a bunch of nonstop goofery involving chase sequences, dream sequences, fast-changing costumes and an improbable beard, a little musical help from Flight Of The Conchords, and ultimately a very physical confrontation with a surprisingly spry Victoria. None of it amounts to much, particularly given that it’s all in the service of a man wanting to win a meaningless contest he doesn’t deserve to win, and the question of whether his noodlehead crew and his surprisingly competent second in command (Martin Freeman) will still respect him throughout. The stakes are low and the story beats are incidental amid the rush of largely mild visual gags and verbal sallies like “Blood Island! So called because it’s the exact shape of some blood!” But Pirates! comes with all the usual Aardman strengths intact, particularly the sense that its characters and creators alike are too good-hearted and sweet to nitpick. The ambition is all in the craft rather than in the storytelling, but it’s hard to say no to the proficiency of that craft, or the mild good cheer behind it.