Ahoy! by Kyle Anderson
Very few studios are attempting to do any kind of animation not primarily rendered with a computer. Pixar and Shrek have all but solidified the digimation domination. 2D, hand-drawn animation also seems to be on its last legs. I didn’t see The Princess and the Frog, but even Disney seems unlikely to do another one of those any time soon. There is, however, a strange resurgence, a welcome one if you ask me, of stop-motion animated films. Henry Selick’s Coraline was a visual triumph and this year Chris Butler’s ParaNorman and Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie both hit the screen. But making stop-motion animated films longer and better than everyone else is British studio, Aardman Animation. It is they who are responsible for Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit. Now, director Peter Lord (co-director of Run) and his co-director Jeff Newitt bring audiences the high-seas adventure, The Pirates! Band of Misfits.
Based on the book, The Pirates in an Adventure with Scientists, which was the film’s title in the UK, the movie follows a pirate captain named The Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) as he and his ragtag group of somewhat inept buccaneers attempt to do enough plundering and pillaging of booty (meaning money, guys) to win him the coveted Pirate of the Year award. Among the many decidedly unwealthy ships they attack is a scientific expedition run by Charles Darwin (voiced by David Tennant). Darwin is immediately enthralled by the Pirate Captain’s faithful parrot, Polly, who just happens to be the world’s last living Dodo. He convinces the pirates to return to England so Darwin can use the dodo to impress the woman he loves, Queen Victoria (voiced by Imelda Staunton). The trouble, wouldn’t you know it, is that Queen Victoria hates pirates and wants all of them to be killed on sight. Silliness and adventure ensue.
This movie is incredibly enjoyable. The voice actors do a wonderful job and feature the likes of Martin Freeman, Brendan Gleeson, Salma Hayek, and Jeremy Piven. The writing is by and large very clever. There are a lot of Airplane!-esque gags, as in a scene where Darwin tells the Pirate Captain about the reward for winning scientist of the year. The Captain grins and we hear a cash register noise, then the camera casually pans over to see that he is pressing buttons on a cash register in his room full of incongruous items. There’s also a very funny series of jokes about Charles Darwin’s monkey butler, Mr. Bobo, and how he communicates through a series of cards with words written on them, and he just so happens to an infinite number of them depending on what he wants to say. Stuff like that had me grinning, and I even chuckled aloud a few times. It was not, however, as funny as I was hoping for. Wallace & Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit was hysterically funny throughout, as are a lot of the shorts, and Chicken Run had a lot more referential humor that I found quite good. This one was funny, but it was more just cute humor. Nothing wrong with it at all, but just less funny than I had expected.
The animation itself is fantastic. While the skies and the seas (which would have been very hard to do in reality) were done via computer animation, the rest of the scenery and all the characters were done via the painstakingly difficult method of stop-motion animation. There is a magic to this. In moments of reflection during the film, one can’t help but marvel at the craftsmanship and incredible detail in each of the character’s faces. In some of the early Aardman films, you can make out fingerprints in the clay, but there’s none of that here. The movement is incredibly fluid and realistic, even for the cartoonish character designs, and it’s astonishing how far the technique has come.
I saw the film in 3D, REAL 3D to be exact, and generally, if I’m going to bother to see a movie in 3D, I want it to be an animated film. They just seem to know how to make the best use of the technology. Coraline, for example, still has what I consider to be the best use of 3D in a film I’ve ever seen. This film, to be honest, did not need to be in 3D. Yes, it was cool to see the real life puppets in three dimensions, but beyond that and a good amount of depth of field, there was nothing jaw-dropping about it. I very much enjoyed myself sitting in an empty theater with my popcorn and soda and 3D glasses over my prescription ones, but if I’m honest with you, I don’t think anyone would miss anything if they saw this movie in 2D. In fact, the most impressive 3D element of the movie was the end credits and that’s simply because I like it when text is separated from a background. Hardly worth the extra shekels, though.
In summation and conclusion, The Pirates! Band of Misfits is a lot of fun and is a solid, if not hilarious, entry into the Aardman animation cannon (that’s a pun, by the way).