After its first computer-animated movie (“Arthur Christmas”), England’s Aardman Studios has reverted to its traditional stop-motion method (though aided by some CGI work in crowd scenes and backgrounds, as well as 3D), while maintaining its wonderfully dry brand of idiosyncratic humor, with “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” a droll, delightful send-up of the Victorian era that might be a bit British for American taste but should bring a broad smile to the faces of their many admirers.
The premise of the movie, adapted by Gideon Defoe from his book, is that the inept Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant), blissfully unaware of his own doltishness, has as his ship’s beloved mascot a singularly plump and unattractive parrot called Polly. The bird is equally adored by the motley crew—second-in-command Pirate With a Scarf (Martin Freeman), who gets his boss out of jams; the Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin); the Pirate With Gout (Brendan Gleeson); the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen), who’s actually a woman in terrible disguise; and others. That’s why they’re all shocked to learn—from young Charles Darwin (David Tennant), no less—that Polly is actually a dodo, a species presumed extinct.
The ambitious Darwin wants Polly for himself, but the Captain—lusting to win the Pirate of the Year Award presented by the Pirate King (Brian Blessed), which has always been denied him by rivals Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek)—decides to go to the Royal Academy of Science himself and win its prize, which he assumes will be a monetary one large enough to impress the King. Unfortunately, the trip to London will put him and the crew in jeopardy from Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), who absolutely hates pirates. Meanwhile the envious Darwin, along with his simian butler Mr. Bobo, plots to steal Polly and present her to the Queen, with whom he’s infatuated. Sadly, the monarch’s interest in the bird proves distinctly unscientific, leading to a big final confrontation aboard her royal flagship.
“Band of Misfits” is jovial enough to redeem the whole pirate genre, which one might have thought had been tarnished irredeemably by the last two dreadful “Caribbean” movies. The screenplay is chock full of clever bits—the pirates’ love of Ham Night, the business of Mr. Bobo communicating with flash cards, the goofy awards ceremonies—as well as some rapid-fire action sequences (like the attempt to steal Polly at Darwin’s house, complete with a chase involving a bathtub and a staircase). The dialogue is snappy, and enthusiastically delivered by a top-flight cast. And visually it’s a marvel. The stop-motion puppetry is amazing, given the number of characters active in many of the scenes—even the relative clumsiness has old-fashioned charm—and it’s seamlessly integrated with the CG backgrounds. The 3D effects are happily used sparingly, though the inevitable darkening of the images remains a loss. But there are so many sight gags on the fringes of the frames that you’ll never catch all of them on first viewing.
Ultimately what’s best about the movie is that as put together by Peter Lord, one of the co-founders of Aardman, it’s true to the studio’s roots, not only in terms of technique but of comic sensibility. That means that it evinces a typically British sense of humor, which prizes deadpan absurdity above all. That will limit its appeal to viewers on this side of the Atlantic, as was the case with the recent “Arthur Christmas.” But those who appreciate the English approach will breathe a sigh relief that Lord and his colleagues haven’t sold out. “The Pirates: Band of Misfits” is pure Aardman, and for fans that spells something close to bliss.