Ten years ago, you could barely get a pirate movie made. Thanks to waterborne failures like Cutthroat Island and Roman Polanski's Pirates, there were plenty of doomsayers thinking Disney was crazy to pin a $140 million swashbuckler on Johnny Depp, an actor who at that point couldn't find a hit with both of Will Smith's hands.
But that was then. Today, it seems, people can't get enough of pirates. Those four Depp movies have made a gazillion dollars, and movie piracy has siphoned off a gazillion more. OK, so maybe that's not exactly the same thing. Still, these are truly halcyon days for the rum 'n' scurvy bunch.
So it's bittersweet that Aardman, the stop-motion geniuses behind Wallace and Gromit, has delivered The Pirates! Band of Misfits. Oh, it's perfectly acceptable. It's fun for the whole family. It has four or five clever jokes only adults would get. But the table has been set to really have some bizzaro fun with the genre, and Pirates! doesn't land enough big punches.
The stop-motion, as always, is inescapably good, although why on earth it needs to be saddled with 3-D is hard to figure. The basic premise is slightly askew: The unaccomplished Pirate Captain (the voice of Hugh Grant) sees an opportunity to become the envy of all buccaneers by winning ... a science contest. He teams with Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who truly does adhere to a survival-of-the-fittest philosophy when he sees potential riches on the horizon.
The film is based on a novella called The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists, and one suspects that if the movie does well, more films will follow the series of books by Gideon Defoe, including adventures with whaling, Napoleon and—somehow—communists. Even though this particular movie ends up a little flat, there's enough to build on here.
When we are introduced to the crew aboard their ship, they're excited that it's Ham Night. As Pirate Captain explains, it's the best thing about his line of work. Each swashbuckler is as unimpressive as the next—the pirate with gout, the surprisingly curvaceous pirate, the pirate with a scarf, and so on. There are no names, just identifiable traits. Soon, the conversation turns to the Pirate of the Year competition, which their fearless leader has lost some 20 straight times. But how in the name of Blackbeard's ghost can Pirate Captain turn the losing streak around if he's more excited about ham than looting or pillaging?
Thinking it to be a treasure ship, Pirate Captain boards Darwin's famed HMS Beagle. Hearing from the young naturalist that there's booty to be won through science, Pirate Captain likes his chances of winning Pirate of the Year that way much more than by using the traditional approach.
Yes, the evolution jokes are enlightened, unexpected and funny. But if natural-selection humor is the best comedy the film has going for it, there'd better be something else pretty dazzling. And there isn't, though Darwin's assistant, a man-panzee named Bobo, is quite entertaining. But this doesn't bring as much joy as other Aardman productions, except for maybe Flushed Away. That is one of the studio's two forays into computer animation, along with last year's Arthur Christmas. It's nice to see Aardman go back to where it started, more or less, even if the results aren't quite as good or long-lasting.
It's equally good to see that Pirates! is co-directed by Peter Lord, who co-founded the studio 40 years ago, which kind of reaffirms how committed the company is. And it's not as though Pirates! is a bad film. It's just one that could rather plainly and obviously be a little better and a little funnier.
Hugh Grant, who has reached the point of being nearly insufferable onscreen over the past several years, is much more on the mark here. Maybe it's because he's in a sound booth, or maybe the script is just better than, say, Did You Hear About the Morgans?, but Grant seems refreshed. The rest of the voice cast does strong work, although it's curious that Jeremy Piven and Salma Hayek—playing two of Pirate Captain's rivals—are reduced to a couple of scenes each.
Pirates! will probably bore young kids, because most of the good jokes are subtle (including a brief appearance by the Elephant Man), and grown-ups are likely to appreciate it more than enjoy it. But it's still better than Captain Jack's last three voyages.