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Yo-ho-ho an' a bucket o' wit

Clever Brit claymation pirate adventure not just for kids

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If the English suffer a reputation for bland food, they compensate with peppery English humour, sprinkled lavishly throughout the best British comedies.

Even films ostensibly targeted at children benefit from this tendency, as we see in the feature-length Aardman Animation comedy The Pirates! Band of Misfits, which was given the no-less-awkward title The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists in its British release.

A work of authentic English comic eccentricity from director Peter Lord (who directed the sublime Chicken Run), the film offers up the silly, vain anti-hero The Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant), an alleged scourge of the seas who actually can't boast much in the way of personal plunder.

He nevertheless decides to make a run for the annual Pirate of the Year Award. After all, his loyal crew loves him for his luxuriant beard, his beloved pet parrot, and his expert preparation of glazed ham.

But more vicious, successful pirates such as Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) and Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) have the Pirate captain beat when it comes to accumulating ill-gotten riches, forcing the hard-luck scalawag to plunder any ship he can find. That strategy brings him to the HMS Beagle, yes, the ship housing scientist Charles Darwin (David Tennant).

There is nothing of much value on Darwin's ship, booty-wise, with the possible exception of Darwin's clever simian manservant Mr. Bobo. But it is Darwin who points out that the Pirate Captain himself is in possession of an item deemed priceless by London's scientific community. The problem is that, to claim this prize, the Pirate Captain must go to London, the home of the most virulent pirate nemesis in the world, Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton).

Aardman Animation has made a couple of computer-generated features in the past few years, including last year's Arthur Christmas and the sewer-rat adventure Flushed Away.

The Pirates represents a welcome return to the stop-motion animated realm from the folks who gave us Wallace and Gromit. The use of real articulated puppets and insanely detailed miniature sets lends a grubby, lived-in charm to the movie that is all the more immersing in 3-D. In an era when, we acknowledge, computers can replicate any reality, it becomes downright fascinating to see how stop motion animators can rise to any challenge, which in this movie ranges from beer foam to a virtual avalanche of gold and jewels.

You might as well keep your eyes peeled for priceless comedy among those richly detailed reproductions of pirate ports. (It will be worth investing in a DVD of this movie a few months hence so you can read all the signs in the background, including an ad for a pest-control spray called "Urchin-Be-Gone.")

Of course, the best comedy is front and centre. The movie may be rated G, but there is a good helping of subversive lunacy to be enjoyed here, including presenting Queen Victoria as a steam-punk villainess and Charles Darwin as a lonely, weedy little gent not above a little larceny to impress the woman he loves.

It may look like a kids movie. But underneath it all, The Pirates hides a treasure trove of wit as outrageous as a Monty Python double feature.

Other Voices

Selected excerpts from reviews of The Pirates! Band of Misfits.

A script that consistently finds fresh outlets for its running gags makes for a sufficiently rollicking pleasure cruise from Britain's Aardman Animations...

-- Nick Pinkerton,

Village Voice

After dipping its toes into pure CG animation for Arthur Christmas, Aardman integrates its feted old-school stop-motion technique with top-drawer visual effects to create the irrepressibly amusing The Pirates! Band of Misfits.

-- Leslie Felperin, Variety

Anyone still doubting that the claymation studio behind Wallace and Gromit deserves a seat at the grown-ups' table only needs to see its pitch-perfect collaboration with author-screenwriter Gideon Defoe...

-- David Fear,

Time Out New York

A delightful romp whose varied pleasures should please kids all along the age spectrum.

-- John DeFore,

Hollywood Reporter

It has a very English kind of daffy humour, absurd but good-hearted, and it is pitched at adults as much as children.

-- Paul Byrnes,

Sydney Morning Herald

It is effortlessly and unassumingly funny -- and terrifically smart.

-- Peter Bradshaw, Guardian

It doesn't look expensive; nor does it look cheap. It just looks the way Aardman films should, which is glorious.

-- Robbie Collin,

Daily Telegraph

-- Compiled by Shane Minkin

Movie preview

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

Starring Hugh Grant and David Tennant

Grant Park, Kildonan Place, Polo Park, St. Vital, Towne


87 minutes

3 1/2 stars out of five

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2012 D1

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