Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Pirate's Life for Them: THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS

There’s something so charmingly handmade about the stop-motion animation of Aardman, the British studio of Peter Lord and Nick Park, who have made the Wallace and Gromit films and Chicken Run. Knowing that every moment, down to the smallest detail, involved a painstaking process of moving the characters and props incrementally a frame at a time means that not a single sight gag or bit of background tomfoolery went without careful planning. These are dense movies with visual jokes layered and lovingly presented and yet their stories are so breezily charming in the telling it hardly feels like work. Repeat viewings reveal an even greater appreciation for the high level of consistent craftsmanship. It’s mighty hard work to feel this slight and effortless.

Perhaps that’s why Aardman’s forays into CGI have been a mixed bag. In Flushed Away (fine) and Arthur Christmas (a wee bit less than fine), some of the comedic appeal is still present in the writing. But for some reason seeing the same designs – round eyes, doughy faces, toothy grins – and detail in a shinier computerized package takes the viewing experience a step away from the handmade qualities that is clearly an integral part of the Aardman experience. It’s hard work to make a CGI movie, to be sure, but I never stop marveling at the level of dedication and planning it takes to pull off even the littlest touch with stop-motion.

And so I was predisposed to like the company’s return to that form of animation in a feature length way. Luckily, The Pirates! Band of Misfits rewarded my hopeful predisposition with a film that’s so silly it’d be hard not to get caught up in it all. It’s been adapted by Gideon Defoe from his book The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, a much better title. (In fact, it’s been released under that title in the UK.) The story follows a group of pirates in the late 1800s desperate to win the Pirate of the Year award for their captain Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) and prove themselves worthy scoundrels.

Pirate Captain has lost the award twenty years in a row, so he figures he is overdue. His crew, with the voices of Martin Freeman, Lenny Henry, Anton Yelchin, Ashley Jensen, Brendan Gleeson, and Al Roker (?), is a motley collection of peg legs, patches, a suspiciously curvaceous pirate, and one really fat parrot. They may not accomplish much in the way of looting and plundering, but they care about each other, so that’s nice. Besides, they seem much more interested in having fun waterskiing, putting on disguises and eating ham, though not all at the same time.

On their way to find “lots of sparkling booty,” they end up running into Charles Darwin (David Tennant), hence the original scientist-referencing title. Darwin and his trained monkey butler (a “man-panzee”) end up getting the pirates into a mess of trouble involving a maniacal Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) and the Royal Academy of Science, with special cameos from Jane Austen and the Elephant Man. From that alone, you can tell this is a movie refreshingly out of step with contemporary family film trends. It’s not a hipper than thou kids’ flick with contemporary pop culture references and grating lowest-common-denominator gags a la the Chipmunks or Smurfs updates or the worst of Dreamworks (or, even worse, sub-Dreamworks) Animation. It’s a movie that is content to reference late 1800s culture in all kinds of ways both subtle and obvious.

It’s a film of sophistication and class in that way, that rewards intelligence and curiosity, which makes it all the more giggly to descend into droll, good-natured silliness right along with these sweet, lovable rapscallions. These goofy pirates make this an animated period piece that’s an unabashed cartoon willing to rustle up historical context in which to spin out crazy slapstick, unexpected non sequiters, a handful of tossed off anachronisms and occasional meta winks in a beautifully straight-faced style. The whole story is a funny mix between a small (very small) amount of real history and hysterical silly fictions. Director Peter Lord and the whole Aardman crew go wild with the hilarious detail. I liked how Darwin’s taxidermy creatures all have terrified expressions on their dead faces and Queen Victoria’s secret-throne room floor is covered with trapdoors. The walls of all the little sets are plastered with small visual jokes that zing by so fast I know I didn’t catch them all.

Narratively speaking, the film is a tad bumpy. It takes quite a while for the plot proper to kick in and, because the characters are purposefully thin archetypes, it’s hard to get all that invested in their emotional arcs, such as they are. But it’s all so winningly detailed in dialogue that zigs and zags and visually, especially in action sequences with oodles of moving parts. And it’s such a well-played goof that’s it’s hard to mind so much that it’s ever so slightly uneven and ultimately a bit less satisfying than the best that Aardman has been. It’s the kind of movie where an island is known as Blood Island because “it’s the exact shape of some blood,” a pirate wonders if pigs are fruit, and Pirate Captain won’t sail a certain route because it would take them right through the spot where the map’s decorative sea monster resides. It’s the kind of movie where London’s scientists pick the Discovery of the Year with an applause meter, one of the attendees of a secret gathering of heads-of-state is Uncle Sam, and a monkey butler communicates through a seemingly endless number of flash cards. The whole film has a likable feeling of sharp, exaggerated silliness of a most lovingly handcrafted kind.

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