The Pirates! Band of Misfits
I’m an unabashed fan of stop-motion animation. It is, in some ways, the purest form of movie-making since it requires the arduous frame-by-frame photography of still figures blended into the illusion of movement.
Compared to that, sitting at a computer screen drawing with a laser stylus seems positively wimpy. It’s also the reason why there simply aren’t a lot of stop-motion feature films; they’re so darned hard to make.
I give respect to “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” for being one of the best-looking movies of this animation style, combining crisp, exaggerated puppetry with computer-generated backgrounds woven together so smoothly you probably won’t even notice where one leaves off and the other begins. Compared to even the wonderful “Coraline” from just three short years ago, “Pirates” registers as a major visual evolution.
But the story just isn’t quite there. Considering the painstaking method in which these films are made, the screenplay has a slapped-together feel to it, like the animators started shooting before the script was fully realized.
Based on the first two books of a series by Gideon Defoe, who also handled the screenplay adaptation, “Pirates” appears to pluck disparate story pieces and toss them carelessly into a gumbo. There are a lot of great elements there, but this one needed more time to cook and maybe a more considered recipe.
As if you couldn’t tell from the title, it’s about the wacky adventures of a group of seafaring pirates circa 1837. Now, pirates in 1837 were about where buggy-whip makers found themselves in 1920 — on their way to history’s dustbin.
And it isn’t helped by the fact that these particular pirates are third-tier swashbucklers at best. Their haul of booty is less than bountiful lately, the ship’s parrot isn’t even a parrot, and the only thing the crew really has to look forward to is Ham Nite.
Heck, the captain doesn’t even have a name. He’s known simply as The Pirate Captain. A decent chap with a bit of a preening nature, the Captain is vexed that he’s never won the Pirate of the Year Award after more than two decades at sea. He wavers on the edge between pomposity and self-defeat, trying to put on a good show for his crew but secretly fearful that he’s a lame pirate leader (despite having both his original legs).
Hugh Grant provides the Captain’s voice, and the best compliment I can give him is that I never would have guessed it was him until I saw his name in the credits.
Other actors providing voices include Brendan Gleeson as a gouty older pirate, Martin Freeman as the noble first officer, Al Roker as a gentle giant and Anton Yelchin as an albino pirate. There’s also a crew member who’s obviously a woman (voiced by Ashley Jensen) disguised behind a terrible beard; it’s pretty much openly acknowledged that she’s way too curvaceous to be a pirate, but no one makes much of a fuss about it.
After being mocked by the front-runners for Pirate of the Year — Jeremy Piven and Salma Hayek included — the Captain and his crew bump into Charles Darwin and get into all sorts of unlikely adventures involving snooty scientists and Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), whose hatred of pirates is obsessive.
Director Peter Lord’s last credit behind the camera was 12 years ago with the jaunty “Chicken Run,” and I think that’s the tone he and co-director Jeff Newitt were going for here: fast and loose. There’s a lot of great throwaway jokes; Darwin’s monkey manservant is a hoot, communicating through silent-movie-style title cards.
But the pacing is off, as “The Pirates!” seems to speed up and slow down so we often feel like we’re either missing the action or waiting around for it.