The Pirates! Band of Misfits just because it is a stop-motion movie, the first made by Aardman Animation since 2005; but this space has always been dedicated to the romanticisation of old-school filmmaking and traditional cartooning techniques, and I find no reason to feel guilty about being thus excited, even the movie itself is determinedly fixed on being as slight and frivolous as can be achieved in 88 minutes. This is not the sort of animated feature that gets described in terms of its eye-opening artistry or piercing narrative intelligence; it's the sort that has to settle for being a bouncy entertainment that is a great deal more wacky and kid-friendly than it is sophisticated and multilayered. But there is a place in the world for well-executed wackiness, just as there is for shattering artistry.
Adapted by Gideon Defoe from his book The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists (the film's title in its native United Kingdom), this is about pirates, having an adventure, with only one scientist, really, but a great many scientists appear in one sequence, so it counts. In particular, it is about a particular band of pirates, who could, yes, in fact be described as "misfits", and I expect that is all you really need me to tell you about the pervading tone of the film, the basic shape of its plot, and the approximate details of its finale. But that's sort of okay, for the reasons noted above. Anyway, the pirates in question don't seem to have names, and are called in dialogue, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, by handles like The Pirate With Gout (Brendan Gleeson), and The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen). and The Pirate With a Scarf (Martin Freeman), all under the command of, obviously, The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant). As we arrive on the scene, the nomination period for the 1837 Pirate of the Year award has just begun, and The Pirate Captain, being an optimistic sort, has concluded that since he's never won in 20 years of piracy, the odds have to be in his favor this time (it is lucky for The Pirate Captain that he lived before Las Vegas was invented), and so he and his crew lunge at every chance to raise untold piles of pirate gold. Since they are very bad at doing this, things look bleak right up until they board a gold-free research vessel on which sails the young Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who observes apparently in passing that The Pirate Captain's "parrot", Polly, is actually a dodo bird, and thus a scientific miracle, and that she would undoubtedly win her owner the Scientist of the Year award, with its attendant purse. Darwin, we are not shocked to find out (though perhaps the very young who are ultimately the film's target audience might be), has ulterior motives, though what these are, how it threatens to divide the close-knit dysfunctional pirate family, and how the psychotically anti-pirate Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) fits into all of this, I choose to leave a secret, because it's all tremendously fun and sufficiently weird that I'm willing to guarantee that you wouldn't be able to guess it, even pretty damn far into the film's running time.
This much is true, anyway: it is completely damn daft in exactly the way that Aardman's classic films were, and especially Chicken Run, the last project helmed by Pirates! co-director Peter Lord. And not that I didn't enjoy Arthur Christmas, because I did. But for all its effusive Britishness and cheesy sense of humor, that movie still felt sort of Pixar/DreamWorks-ey in its concept-heavy plot and PG-sassy attitude. Where Pirates! runs out of concept right around "pirates with adjectival phrases for names meet Charles Darwin and fight Queen Victoria", and the whole thing is extremely, and perhaps even inordinately, silly. "What is the best thing about being a pirate?" demands The Pirate Captain in an early scene, eventually revealing the answer to be, "Ham Night!" If the idea of a group of pirates acting giddy as fanboys over a weekly ham dinner does not amuse you in any way, I think it's safe to say that you can waltz right on by Pirates! without feeling like you're missing out, though I also have to wonder when you stopped being able to experience joy.
Like Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Aardman's last stop-motion film, this is a mixture of hand-manipulated puppets that movie with a prideful stiffness and juttering, and CGI to fill in the gaps where physics make effective stop-motion impossible; but even with more obvious computer-animated gloss than Were-Rabbit feature had, Pirates! is still everything that aggressive technophobes like myself love about the form, and particularly the form as Aardman practices it, where you can literally see the fingerprints in some shots. It is warm, and tactile, and feels sort of like people filmed themselves playing with toys, and that fact alone gives the film a kind of sweetness and appeal that most contemporary animation is simply too slick to tap into, and even a stop-motion masterpiece such as 2009's Coraline misses out on, simply because it is too polished. Pirates! is above all things, not polished. It is obviously detailed, and obviously costly, but there's something almost crude about it, and plain - it doesn't attain the heights of Chicken Run, in which every last detail is so self-evidently hand-crafted that the whole thing almost feels like it was made in somebody's bedroom, but I'd stack it up comfortably against Were-Rabbit, anyway.
Here's the hell of it all: the film is charming and warm and inviting and all, but it really isn't very deep. And I don't mean that in some snobbish "comedies are shallow" way. This is all just very flimsy, disposable stuff, is the case, though it has the decency to be awfully fun, with some terrific vocal performances: Grant, in his first animated role, is lovely and stuffy, and Staunton is wonderfully screechy, and Freeman is the best at deliving Defoe's super-dry jokes. And even though it is unabashedly a kids' movie, it's the kind that gets that way by being innocent and simple, not the kind that gets that way by being stupid and shallow. Which is to say, it's the kind of kids' movie that is absolutely fine if adults want to come along and watch it, because even adults like to laugh at silly things and enjoy themselves and not have to juggle crazy, complex things. And since this kind of kids' movie is one of the rarest of all contemporary film types - one a year is what I've learned to hope for, recently - I think that Pirates! deserves no small amount of credit for being an absolute delight for every second of its agreeably slight running time, and for never acting like the viewer is an idiot even as it never requires that the viewer be a genius. But it's still utterly trivial, and as easy as it is to enjoy that, it's kind of hard to get really enthusiastic about it, as well.