As blasphemous as it seems to criticize Aardman, the animation powerhouse behind, of course, Wallace and Gromit, their big-screen resume has been less than stellar since the release of the still-amazing Chicken Run, but that was all the way back in 2000, as they’ve seemed to have eschewed storytelling in favor of Hollywood convention. Even the beloved man-and-dog franchise players’ 2005 feature-length debut, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, despite its financial success, was a bit of a letdown, and an acrimonious split from longtime collaborator DreamWorks the following year didn’t help either.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Aardman’s first megaplex offering following a six-year hiatus, doesn’t halt their ongoing decline. It has all the reliable elements – Peter Lord in the director’s chair, a return to stop-motion animation (2006’s Flushed Away was entirely CGI), and a reliable cast featuring Imelda Staunton and Brendan Gleeson, but the story, based on the children’s book of the same name by Gideon Defoe (who also penned the screenplay), just doesn’t translate well onscreen.
The year is 1837, and Pirate Captain (yep, that’s his name, and he’s voiced by Hugh Grant) wants nothing more than to win the coveted Pirate of the Year award, so he and his loyal crew attempt to pillage the most booty as the ceremony approaches, but their adventures soon take them to Victorian London. There’s even appearances by – you guessed it – the pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Staunton), and Charles Darwin (David Tennant), when Pirate Captain and crew attempt to plunder his vessel, but they’re depicted in the script as conniving and obnoxious.
The signature Aardman animation and production design are predictably flawless, as is their ongoing gimmick of hiding visual inside jokes among props and scenery (this includes an amusing running gag centered around Brian Blessed, who has a minor role), but it can’t compensate for a script that simply runs on fumes. The jokes are flat and the voice work is as generic as the characters. It gets to the point that we’re subjected to a blatant Rihanna joke in the form of one of Pirate Captain’s rivals, Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek, terrific in last year’s Puss in Boots), who just happens to hail from Barbados, is suggestively dressed, and sports some anachronistic bling around her neck.
The Pirates! is reduced to scores of films beforehand whose best scenes are all couched in the trailer, including the one scene that got a laugh out of me: the giant airborne whale bursting from the ocean and crash-landing into a coastal village. Nearly all the rest of its brief 88 minutes amounts to nothing more than fool’s gold.