Almost no one who read Gideon Defoe's cult series of absurdist novels about 19th-century pirates put the books down and thought: Claymation!
No one except fellow Brit Peter Lord, head of Aardman animation, the company behind the Wallace & Gromit franchise, and when you think about it, the perfect outfit to grasp the author's Anglo-eccentricities and convey them safely to screen. Just to make sure, Aardman hired Defoe to develop the screenplay.
Their collaboration is called The Pirates! Band of Misfits. It's Aardman's first stop-motion picture since Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2005, and while it's a first-rate piece of animation, its up-tempo, joke-a-minute tone is more in line with the studio's recent experiment in conventional animation, Arthur Christmas.
Defoe's revolving literary prank is to place 19th-century pirates in the same orbit as any prominent figure from that century, real or imagined, such as Napoleon, Karl Marx, Moby Dick.
Pirates takes that idea and runs with it - a second-rate pirate (voice of Hugh Grant) and his crew run into Charles Darwin (David Tennant), and the whole gang take a rare dodo bird to Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), only to find she's part of an epicurean snuff club that dines on near-extinct animals. Look fast for cameos from Jane Austen and the Elephant Man - in fact, I think they're on a date.
The story is light and loose to the point of sloppiness - there's a Pirate of the Year contest that makes a big show of introducing buccaneer characters (Salma Hayek, Jeremy Piven), but they disappear, quickly and completely. And parents should know that most of the jokes are pitched to adults - I'm not sure how much is left for preteens who will make up the bulk of the audience.
The animation, on the other hand, is highly accomplished. The figures, materials, and sets are beautifully and intricately designed, so polished it's difficult to tell the models and puppets from the computer-animated figures used to fill out the frame.
In fact, the stop-motion animation is almost too good, too polished. I miss the slightly jerky clay movements of Wallace & Gromit, and the evidence of the human touch.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits **1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Peter Lord, Jeff Newitt. With the voices of Hugh Grant, David Tennant, Brendan Gleeson, Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek. Distributed by Columbia / Sony Pictures Animation / Aardman.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (a little profanity, sword fighting, rum drinking)
Playing at: area theaters