Forget the rum; it’s the fun that’s running dry in Aardman Animation’s The Pirates! Band of Misfits.
While it’s pleasing to see the British animation studio return to their stop-motion roots after dabbling with CG in Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas, it would have been even more pleasing had this high-seas adventure been more memorable than middling. Aardman’s clay craftsmanship is still second-to-none, but the colourful array of characters we’ve come to expect from the makers of Wallace & Gromit, and the high-stakes adventure that enlivened their crowning achievement Chicken Run have been largely plundered from this disappointing production.
Hugh Grant (Love Actually) lends his bumbling baritones to the frankly named Pirate Captain, the ostentatious yet insecure leader of a crew of buccaneers more interested in plating up for “Ham Nite” than plundering the seas for booty. Eager to gain the respect of his pirating peers Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven; RocknRolla) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek; Grown Ups), the Captain enters himself into the prestigious Pirate of the Year Awards, despite his humiliating lack of loot. His odds, however, increase after a run-in with Charlies Darwin (David Tennant; Fright Night), who informs the Captain that Polly the parrot is actually Polly the dodo, making her an absolute shoo-in for the Royal Society’s scientific discovery of the year. The only problem is that they must travel to London to claim the prize, placing them right under the nose of the ruthless Queen Victoria, who hates pirates with eye-popping, table-slamming passion. It’s a role Helena Bonham Carter could have voiced in her sleep, but the duties here go to Aardman regular Imelda Staunton (Arthur Christmas), who chews at the clay scenery and spits out her dialogue with amusing ardour.
It’s a shame the same can’t be said about the remaining cast, although that has more to do with the unremarkable characters than it does the voices behind them. Martin Freeman (Wild Target) isn’t given a single memorable line to deliver as the captain’s level-headed right-hand man, while Ashley Jensen – delightfully funny as the gift-wrapping elf in Arthur Christmas – is squandered in a role ripe with comedic, narrative and romantic potential that never eventuates. The film also sets up a promising rivalry between the four pirate captains competing for the golden skull and crossbones, but they too are left in the wake of a trifling story that fails to set sail in an interesting direction.
To be fair, Aardman’s adventures are often amusingly trivial — be it the quest to retrieve some cheese, or deliver one missed Christmas present — but they’ve always made sure the journey getting there is an absolute hoot, filled eccentric characters, maniacal villains, and wonderfully wacky chase sequences. These elements aren’t entirely missing from The Pirates!, they’re just in short supply, evidence being the greater number of coughs heard during my screening than laughs. Sure, the film still looks an absolute treasure, but don’t forget that it’ll cost you one too, especially if you intend to take the whole family to see it in 3D. So hold on to your gold and wait for the DVD.