Aardman Animation’s The Pirates! Band of Misfits packs the frame with sight gags, constantly throws out clever asides, and has more wit than a dozen other animated family films combined. And yet, it’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny. Being clever, witty, and fun usually lead to a film that constantly has you gasping for air from laughing so hard, but those hard laughs never come in The Pirates!. Instead, the movie generates both admiration for the intelligence of its jokes and the frustration that those jokes can only muster grins and chuckles.
The Pirates! has complete confidence in its storytelling right down to the names of its protagonists. The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant)—and yes, the character’s name is “Pirate Captain”—desperately wants to win the “Pirate of the Year” award, but he’s a bit of a joke in the pirating community, and only his luxurious beard gets any respect. The Pirate Captain is determined to prove his doubters wrong, and bring home the most booty, but he’s unsuccessful until he accidentally tries to raid a ship with a young Charles Darwin (David Tennant) aboard. When Darwin sees the Pirate Captain’s beloved “parrot” Polly is actually the world’s last dodo, a mutually beneficial relationship arises: the Pirate Captain can win “untold riches” from presenting Polly at the Science Awards in London, and Darwin has the chance to win respect and possibly an audience with his crush, Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), who hates pirates with every ounce of her being.
It’s difficult to criticize a film like The Pirates! Band of Misfits when it’s so well-crafted. The movie’s attention to detail is superb. The Pirates! is a film where, like the previous Aardman film, Arthur Christmas, you want to watch frame-by-frame so you can spot every little joke hanging in the background. The claymation is gorgeous, and while Aardman’s CG work has been admirable, their legacy will always be in stop-motion animation. Their humor carries through in both mediums, but the CG can’t hold a digital candle to the charm of claymation. Even the 3D doesn’t ruin the experience. It almost looks as though Aardman worked to account for the dimness 3D brings to movies, and boosted the colors. If you remove your glasses, the image looks slightly over-saturated and blown-out, which mitigates the 3D, or rather, the cheapness of theaters that never use blubs on 3D movies at the proper brightness because they’ll burn out faster.
Everything in The Pirates! is intelligent and confident, and the movie sneaks in some marvelous and subtle sight gags. In one scene, the Pirate Captain’s first mate, The Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman), bursts into a bedroom to tell the Pirate Captain some important information, and the Captain is sleeping in a hammock overhanging the bed. The movie doesn’t call attention to it, but it conveys that A) the Pirate Captain is always a pirate whether he’s on land or sea; and B) it’s funny to see a hammock overhanging a bed. The Pirates! also has some killer throwaway lines, like when The Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin) comments, “London smells like Grandma.”
Those jokes stand out because they were the rare moments when The Pirates! Band of Misfits got a huge laugh out of me. There wasn’t a scene in the film where I wasn’t at least chuckling or sporting a huge grin because it’s a sharp, self-assured picture through-and-through. The movie has lovable characters and a swift plot, and yet all of its positive traits leave the audience craving just a bit more. Director Peter Lord comes so close to creating one of Aardman’s best movies yet, but the comic punches never land with enough force to leave a lasting impression.
It’s a bit too much to call The Pirates! a “disappointment”, because “disappointment” implies that this is a bad movie, which it absolutely is not. Aardman has thoughtfully created a rich, quirky, delightful experience that goes far beyond most family fare. And yet, it’s confusing and frustrating that a movie made by such smart, witty people should come up as less than the sum of its parts. The Pirates! Band of Misfits is a movie where you’ll leave the theater with a big smile on your face, warmth in your heart, and a struggle to pinpoint the moments that caused either.