Did you know that the sea monsters drawn on old nautical maps were put there for decoration (probably)? That the main challenge of Charles Darwin’s scientific career was how to attract a girl? That Her Serene Highness Queen Victoria was in fact a ninja?
For top-notch historical research and lowbrow high jinks on the high seas, there’s no topping The Pirates! Band of Misfits. This splashy send-up is a dead man’s chest of laughs. Presented in a seamless blend of claymation, computer graphics, classical cartooning and 3-D, it’s the most technically ambitious effort yet from England’s Aardman Animation, creators of the classic Wallace and Grommit series. It’s not Aardman’s best by a long shot, but the tale’s seafaring shenanigans are leagues above most animated ho-hummery.
The film is loosely based on Gideon Defoe’s book series about comically inept scalawags, with Hugh Grant giving voice to the Pirate Captain, a hairy, walking neurosis.
The epitome of British underdog humor, he leads his men on raids against gold-stuffed galleons that turn out to be plague ships or school outings. He hopes to win the Pirate of the Year Award, but since the bounty on his head is a measly 12 doubloons, prospects are dim. When they raid Darwin’s Beagle and learn that their pet parrot is in fact a priceless dodo, the path to the prize detours the crew to London and into the presence of the fire-breathing monarch herself. Imelda Staunton is suitably ferocious as the quarrelsome queen.
Like Defoe’s books, the film is stuffed with absurd anachronisms, broad comedy and sly asides aimed at older audiences. Quite a lot of plot rejiggering was required as the film jettisoned a lot of Defoe’s book. The original subtitle was An Adventure with Scientists, and the antagonist was Darwin’s archenemy, the “evil,” “nefarious,” “black-hearted” Bishop of Oxford. Anti-clerical satire is sheer heresy for the American multiplex, and like Philip Pullman’s dark fantasy The Golden Compass, this film has been drastically gutted and jerry-built to avoid a culture-war tizzy. If I had a plank handy, I’d make the yellow-belly behind that decision walk it.
Even with a major character and the foundation of its (admittedly flimsy) plot missing, Pirates lives pretty well from gag to gag, nearly achieving its Monty Python-Treasure Island potential. There are genius moments here. The pirate ship features coin-op cannons, a surprisingly curvaceous mate with a hilariously transparent fake beard never arouses suspicion, and Joseph Merrick pops in for a brief Elephant Man cameo.
There are flat stretches as well (Salma Hayek and Jeremy Piven underwhelm as villainous rival Pirate of the Year contestants). Still, I emitted more “Harrrs” than “Arrghs.”
Voices: Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant, Selma Hayek, Jeremy Piven.
Directors: Peter Lord, Jeff Newitt.
Screenwriter: Gideon Defoe.
Producers: Julie Lockhart, Peter Lord, David Sproxton.
A Columbia Pictures release. Running time: 88 minutes. mild action, rude humor and some language. Opens Friday April 27 at area theaters.