After a couple of forays into computer animation with Arthur Christmas (2011) and Flushed Away (2006), Aardman—the studio made famous for Wallace and Gromit—have returned to their claymation roots with The Pirates! Band of Misfits. With that in mind, this film is very much in the spirit of their earlier output, being irreverent, goofy, clever and very British—all with a kind heart. Yet, unlike some of their earlier works, The Pirates! never quite achieves greatness. Yeah, it’s entertaining, and it’s a rare film aimed at kids that doesn’t talk down to them or devolve into toilet humor, but there’s just not enough to Pirates! to make it a memorable experience.
The story follows the appropriately named Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant), a jolly pirate with a sunny disposition and a love of ham, but not much of a talent for pirating. None of this seems to matter to him or his titular crew of misfits, until Pirate Captain decides he wants to win the vaunted Pirate of the Year award. This sets up a whole slew of misadventures taking the crew and their gregarious-yet-clueless leader all over the high seas, from an encounter with a lovesick Charles Darwin (voiced by David Tennant) and his monkey servant, to a run-in with Queen Victoria (voiced by Imelda Staunton).
The film is definitely inventive, and the material—a mix of slapstick (the movie isn’t afraid to be silly), playful turns of phrase, and in-jokes—is certainly clever. But as well crafted as it is, I never had the sense that I was watching something truly special. Not that it needs to be. With the choices out there right now, a movie that’s merely good enough is an improvement. But Pirates! lacks a certain spark, and I suspect it will have left my memory by the end of the year.
This is a pity, too, since Pirates! is certainly technically impressive (it seems that Aardman has finally figured out how to keep those creepy phantom fingerprint smudges from suddenly appearing on their characters’ faces), and there’s a sweetness and joviality that fills the film. But it’s more clever than hilarious, which might be my biggest problem with the film. Pirates!’ high quality within the world of cinematic junk food is sufficient for me to recommend it, however, and it’s definitely one of the better family-fare options on screen at the moment. Rated PG for mild action, rude humor and some language.