The consistency with which such easy targets as English snobbery and Jack Sparrow-like buffoonery bounce off each other in The Pirates! Band of Misfits, the latest Claymation effort from Aardman Animations, admirably gives director Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt’s amusing pastiche a uniform identity. The ludicrous extremes of its characters’ behavior—the dimwitted naïveté of the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) trying to win the coveted “Pirate of the Year” award and the devilish ambition of his archrival, Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton)—are pit in opposition in this playful historical parody. But that’s the extent of the film’s ambition, content as it is to run clever one-liners and 19th-century pop-cultural references into the same comedic whirlpool.
As if to convey a sense of sailing from the very first moment, the film opens with a Ruiz-like camera move gliding through a circular window, then above an ornate dining room where Queen Victoria expresses her complete hatred for the pillaging pirates. Such cinematic grace dissipates when splintering canon fire shreds the film’s title card and a more direct sense of storytelling takes over. From there, The Pirates! shifts to the rickety vessel where the Pirate Captain and his brood of familiar archetypes, by acting collectively as fools, call attention to all that’s ridiculous about swashbuckler films. Stripped of their Christian names in favor of “hilarious” descriptors (the Albino Pirate, the Pirate With Gout), each character is a symbol or reference, a way for the knowing audience to express certain superiority over the idiocy on display.
Much of the film is affable, sidestepping the darker aspects of pirate iconography for set pieces brimming with safely constructed kinetics. A destructive chase scene inside Charles Darwin’s (David Tennant) house functions as a template for the kind of easy slapstick that becomes the film’s bread and butter. But after a while, even the most impressive 3D moments begin to blend together. There’s just nothing to distinguish one action scene from the next, and unlike Lord’s far superior Chicken Run, The Pirates! fails to give these moments emotional weight. The result is a wafer-thin narrative stretched to its breaking point, wholly dependent on the charisma and chemistry of its voice talents to carry us through the 88-minute running time.
Despite its adherence to reductive sight gags and symbolism, The Pirates! aches to be explored from a more complex angle. When a fight breaks out in the group over the best reason to be a pirate, the Pirate Captain’s juvenile answer reveals a desire for strong familial ties instead of the typical money-hungry motivations. It’s a theme that can be found in the simplistic narrative arc of the Pirate Captain, whose disloyalty to his pet Dodo bird is a nearly unforgivable offense. Even Darwin, seen here as a nefarious heavy and puppet of Queen Victoria’s rampaging elitism, is given the opportunity to redeem his ill-fated pursuits by reinvesting in the idea of loyalty and friendship. But this undercurrent only seems like an afterthought to Lord and Newitt, obviously talented comedy filmmakers who in this instance seem content in pandering to the masses with a mediocre product.