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 Animations, the company behind the "Wallace and 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 "Pirates: Band of Misfits." It's Aardman's first stop-motion picture since "Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Were Rabbit" in 2006, and while it's a first-rate piece of animation, it's 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 — Napoleon, Karl Marx, Moby Dick.
"Pirates" takes that idea and runs with it and his crew run into Charles Darwin (David Tennant), and the whole gang takes a dodo bird to Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), only to find she's part of a 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 a 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 comprise the bulk of the audience.
The animation, on the other hand, is highly accomplished. The figures, materials and sets are beautifully and intricately designed; it's difficult to tell the models and puppets from the computer-animated figures used to fill out the frame.
The stop-motion animation is almost too good, too polished. I miss the slightly jerky clay movements of Wallace and Gromit, and the evidence of the human touch. n
Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or email@example.com. Read his blog, "Keep It Reel," at philly.com/keepitreel.