“It’s only impossible if you stop to think about it!” As a call to action, this line captures both the exuberant silliness and the sly, throwaway gaggery in The Pirates! Band of Misfits, a stop-motion animation comedy adventure from Aardman Studios, those cheerfully nutty folk responsible for the Wallace and Gromit series and Chicken Run.
This time, they tackle a swashbuckling pirate adventure, a huge canvas that stretches from the exotic pirate islands of the West Indies to the cobbled streets, dockside taverns, and royal palaces of Victorian London. It’s a daunting task for a bunch of people rolling up teeny bits of colored clay into faces and figures and photographing them in action, one frame at a time (but, hey, it’s only impossible if you stop to think about it). Scripted by Gideon Defoe, from his series of small, comic novels (principally “The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists”), and co-directed by Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt, the story revolves around our hero, Pirate Captain (voice of Hugh Grant), known for his “luxuriant” beard, his beloved pet bird, Polly, and his insatiable love of ham. To finally win the coveted Pirate of the Year award, Pirate Captain needs to amass a lot of booty. After some unsuccessful attempts to plunder passing ships (a school field trip, a nudists’ cruise, a ghost ship), he and his crew board The Beagle and capture naturalist Charles Darwin (David Tenant), a science nerd who fears he’ll never get a girlfriend. When Darwin informs them that Polly is a rare dodo, long thought to be extinct, and hints there could be a lot of prize money for exhibiting her to the Royal Society in London, the crew sails for England. The fun is all in the details, from an Elvis-like Pirate King to a deadpan monkey who communicates with flash cards, brief appearances by Jane Austen and The Elephant Man, and the notoriously pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton). Pay attention to the wry dialogue, the newspapers, posters and paintings in the backgrounds (most of which are scrolled over again during the closing credits, so stick around), and sight gags, like the Captain’s flag, with its skull and ham bones. The cartoon maps with their animated winds, Neptune, and mermaids chasing the ship around are a riot, too, so abandon rational thinking and enjoy the ride. (PG) 88 minutes. (★★★)