PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS is a gleefully revisionist take on pirates, royalty, and the early 19th-century scientific community. Brought to animated life by the fine folks at Aardman Studio with their distinctive stop-motion brilliance, and a dash of CGI, the film also features 3-D that is used cleverly but without ostentation.
Clever is the byword of this enterprise. The humor is both broad and sly, existing in a mutually non-exclusive arrangement that brings to mind the best examples of symbiosis to be found in nature. While the appeal of lichens, one of natures best symbiots, is limited, that of this film is not. Scripted by Gideon Defoe and based on his novel of a very similar name, it features a fiendishly plotted story that leaves nothing to chance. There are no loose ends here. Instead, casually placed foreshadowings and plot devices spring up later with a deeply satisfying sense of the thoughtful and inventive attention to detail at work her.
The time is 1837 and Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) is desperate to win the Pirate of the Year Award. With a charming obliviousness, and an iffy understanding of either probability or statistical analysis, he has convinced himself that 20 years of losing out to more successful members of his profession have only increased his chances of finally clinching the trophy. That and his exceptionally luxuriant beard. Though supported by a loyal if ineffectual crew, his inability to rake in pirate booty, and a price on his head of only 12 doubloons, not to mention the derision of the pirate community, Pirate Captains dreams seem doomed. That is until he chances upon the pre-celebrity Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who identifies the Pirate Captains pet parrot as a ci-presumed extinct dodo, and promises a prize of incalculable value if the bird is shown in London at the latest scientific convention. Pirate Captain finds a renewed enthusiasm for the pirate life, and more of the charming obliviousness about Queen Victorias (Imelda Staunton) vitriolic antipathy towards pirates that finds its expression both in her royal crest and by the executioner she keeps on call for any pirates she finds near the royal presence.
There is a great deal of plot here and the film races along to fit it all in without ever quite giving the impression that its rushed. There is plenty of time for the astonishing amount of detail in both story by Defoe and the astounding sets devised by the craftspeople at Aardman. The plastic nature of the medium allows for characters that are expressive in every respect, from body language to the rich and seemingly endless capacity for facial expression, from pathos to whimsy, from rage to slapstick, be the character pirate or royal, dodo or Mr. Darwins experiment, Mr. Bobo, his manpanzee, a dapper chimp raised as a human whose speech is limited to an always appropriate set of flashcards rendered with flowery copperplate engraving, and whose acute intelligence, greater than that of most, if not all, of the humans around him, is second only to his impeccable taste is clothing. The animation is done, for the most part, the old-fashioned way, with CGI used sparingly. The ocean, for example. The verisimilitude, the which plasticine would be hard-pressed to approach even at Aardman, lends itself surprisingly well to the meticulously constructed analogue aspects of the film. As does the Clashs London Calling, which announces the Captain Pirates ship arriving in the eponymous city.
PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS is a fast and furious adventure that works for both adults, who is groove in the inside jokes and delightfully deliberate anachronisms, and kids, few of whom can resist an erudite chimp or a science experiment gone wrong. Not to mention pirates behaving in ways both bad and silly. And neither age group can be immune to the charms of a bathtub chase through a rickety Victorian mansion, complete with stuffed mammoth and massive Easter Island stone head, not to mention a suspiciously curvaceous member of the crew that no one suspects is a woman. Break out the ham (the pirates favorite feasting fodder), practice baiting the cockneys (one of the eras popular pastimes), and prepare for one of the best animated films ever.