Here’s a little fact that the history books might have left out: Charles Darwin was a terribly lonely man. The revolutionary scientist kept a chimpanzee manservant, liked big butts, and could in fact lie if it meant getting all up in one.
So what will get Charles (voiced by David Tennant) the glory -- and girlfriend -- that he so desperately seeks? A rare dodo bird, maybe the last one, being mistaken for a big-boned parrot by the scallywag likes of pirate captain Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant). The Captain himself is looking for a different kind of booty, though, to fund his candidacy for the Pirate of the Year awards. Can both men achieve their goals, even when it means venturing into London, home of the pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton)?
That’s the twisty narrative behind Aardman’s latest gloriously irreverent outing, The Pirates! Band of Misfits (more aptly titled in the U.K. as The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists). As one might imagine, silliness reigns supreme as our motley crew -- including The Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman), The Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), The Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin), and The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen, plus a fake beard) -- cherish their “Ham Nites” above any actual pillaging, under the command of a captain who doesn’t know the actual word for “cannons.”
A fitting union between the animation studio’s stop-motion techniques, made famous by Wallace & Gromit, and its computer-generated side, used in full for last year’s Arthur Christmas, Pirates! marks the return of Aardman co-founder Peter Lord to directorial duties (shared with Jeff Newitt) some twelve years after he helmed the adorable Chicken Run. Nearly every frame is crammed with wonderful background details (the crest for the Royal Society of Scientists boasts that they’ve been “Playing God Since” we missed the year), some of which are given their full due during the end credits, and conventional sight gags abound. If you ever wondered how a ship leaves those little red trails on a great big map in the movies, you’re about to find out, and if you’re worried that today’s cartoons don’t have enough jokes at John Merrick’s expense, then just you wait.
Grant’s voice work effortlessly personifies the Captain’s dimwitted swagger and wounded pride -- not that it’s saying a whole lot given Did You Hear About the Morgans?, but it’s easily his most charming performance in a good five years -- while Tennant, Staunton, and Yelchin respectively do underhanded, menacing, and impossibly earnest very well. The whole of The Pirates! flies by in under ninety minutes, even working in a Flight of the Conchords number at one point, and it’s all so charming that one’s willing to overlook the fact that A) the climax is essentially the same showdown featured in Lord’s own Chicken Run, and B) the aforementioned silent simian sidekick, Dr. Bobo, is basically Gromit given index cards.
But, to paraphrase a certain man with a certain luxuriant beard, it’s only impossible to enjoy if you stop to think about it.