Gadzooks, is this movie bonkers. I mean, really. You would never know from the trailers — the American trailers, I mean — just how outrageous it is.
It starts off more or less like any animated pirate adventure might, I guess, with a pirate ship captained by a salty bloke called the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) and a scruffy crew with handles like Pirate With Gout, Albino Pirate and Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (the last, of course, being a reference to the convention in period stories in which a woman wearing men’s clothing is unrecognizable as a woman).
But then comes a scene with the pirate crew assailing a ship called the HMS Beagle, where a lonely young bloke named, yes, Charles Darwin (David Tennant) is jotting in his journal about a new species of barnacle he’s discovered — and lamenting that he’s never going to get a girlfriend. Who thinks of that?
The answer, apparently, is Gideon Dafoe, who adapted his own whimsically named novel The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists for Aardman Animations’ screen adaptation. Dafoe is also presumably responsible for the disconcertingly intimidating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), a royal counterpart to the implacable Mrs. Tweedy of Chicken Run. Ditto cameo appearances by other 19th-century figures that you may have to explain to your kids afterward and, in some cases, which even parents may not recognize.
Suffice to say this is not the movie the American trailers are pitching to American viewers. Even the dumbed-down U.S. title — The Pirates! Band of Misfits — could be an offering from almost any Hollywood studio. In Great Britain, Aardman’s swashbuckling adventure has been riding high at the box office for weeks using the actual name of Dafoe’s book. You can imagine how long suits at Sony considered going with that title. Remember how American editors changed “philosopher’s stone” in the first Harry Potter book to “sorcerer’s stone” — effectively robbing generations of American children of a point of contact with medieval and classical lore? If “philosopher” was too highbrow for American kiddies, just think how off-putting “scientist” would be. (Surprisingly, Dafoe’s book is available in the U.S., with its title intact, from Pantheon.)
An Aardman film is always an exercise in absurdity, but The Pirates, directed by Peter Lord (Chicken Run) and Jeff Newitt, is possibly their silliest ever. This is the kind of film in which people say things like “Blood Island! So called because …it is the exact shape of some blood!” And: “You can’t always say Arrrrr! at the end of a sentence and think that makes everything all right.” And: “London town: the most romantic city in the world.” (Followed by: “London smells like Grandma!”) Those crazy Brits!
Following last year’s Santa story Arthur Christmas, The Pirates! marks a return to form for Aardman, in more ways than one. Most obviously, where Arthur Christmas was computer-animated, The Pirates! is a welcome return to stop-motion animation. Not that there’s anything wrong with computer animation, but everybody’s doing it. And there’s something charming and just plain magical about stop-motion movies — a tangibility, a lovingly hand-crafted quality evocative of kids playing with toys.
The material also seems, to me, a better fit for Aardman’s sensibilities. The studio’s trademark playfulness was certainly in evidence in Arthur Christmas, but that movie suffered from an elusive lack of Christmas spirit, even in Santa’s own family. There was a naive sweetness to the globe-spanning plot coming down to whether a single girl in Cornwall would get her Christmas present, but with it was an off-putting implication that Christmas would be ruined without a present. (Even The Grinch knew better than that!)
The piratical nonsense of The Pirates! offers smoother sailing, and inspires the Aardman crew to greater heights of lunacy — sort of Monty Python for kids. Along with this comes some mild British naughtiness: a fleeting gag involving nudists, references to “scantily clad mermaids” and to “those tropical islands with ladies whose outfits don’t leave much to the imagination,” etc. The Suprisingly Curvaceous Pirate winds up in a rather awkward situation at one point, though nobody notices. Oh, and there’s the voluptuous Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), a flamboyantly female pirate captain who struts into a room like Jessica Rabbit. (Like Peter Pan’s Captain Hook, who shot one of his own men for playing an accordion, Liz stabs a random man or two just to flaunt her attitude.)
All of this seems to me more innocent and palatable than the rude humor lacing much home-grown animated fare. I’ll take The Pirates! over the suggestive come-ons, fetishized cross-dressing and/or homosexual-themed humor common in Hollywood family films, from Madagascar 2 and the Happy Feet movies to The Smurfs and Hop. Nobody here feels the need to work in references to Brokeback Mountain or Playboy. And instead of critters breaking out into sensual hip-hop gyrations, The Pirates! briefly spotlights rats engaged in … Irish step dancing. Brilliant.
For some pious souls, the presence of Darwin as a character, with his chimpanzee valet Mr. Bobo and various comic allusions to evolutionary theory, could be at least as troubling as the sort of behavior listed above. I don’t share their premises, but for what it’s worth, the depiction of Darwin, like that of Queen Victoria, is about as irreverent and iconoclastic as Creation was hagiographical. In a word, be they six-day creationists or Darwinian materialists, viewers with a sense of humor are more than likely to enjoy The Pirates — and I wouldn’t be surprised if humorless individuals of both persuasions manage to take offense.
The Pirates! isn’t as inspired as Wallace and Gromit, nor does it match Chicken Run for genre satire or character development. Yet what it lacks in cohesion and discipline, it makes up for in freewheeling creativity and endless attention to detail. On top of everything else, there’s always plenty to look at — right through the lavishly designed end credits, which my kids and I happily watched right to the parting disclaimer assuring us that no dodos were made extinct during the making of this picture.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.
Content Advisory: Comic menace and violence, including a couple of unprovoked stabbings; some mildly suggestive humor; a crass word or two. Kids and up.