Americans who fell for Nick Park's charming Wallace & Gromit shorts know that Aardman Animations, the little British studio that made its name in stop-motion Plasticine, isn't just some esoteric outfit. The wit and cinematic sensibility of these adventures could certainly translate into mainstream success. Yet over the last dozen years, as feature animation became a sure bet, Aardman efforts like Arthur Christmas and Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit have lagged at the box office.
Why does Aardman have to fight to get folks to see clever, rollicking tales like The Pirates! Band of Misfits? There's nothing off-putting about the premise, which finds a generically named Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) in 1837 trying to win the Pirate of the Year award that has long eluded him. Unfortunately, he and his crew are generally better at blundering than plundering, to the point that they believe their assault on a scientific vessel called the Beagle is simply their latest failure.
But the Beagle's soon-to-be-famous passenger Charles Darwin (David Tennant) realizes that the Pirate Captain's "parrot" is in fact something else - something that could mean scientific fame, or perhaps treasure from Queen Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton) that would give the Pirate Captain an edge in the all-important "booty" category.
Director Peter Lord has a sure hand with action set pieces, providing the kind of exuberant entertainment that appeals across ages. One chase finds the pirates becoming unwilling passengers in a runaway bathtub hurtling down a stairway. Later, the combination of a sinking ship and a dirigible creates a wonderfully perilous finale. Lord understands precisely how to pace an adventure in a way that keeps energy and interest high, even for kids who don't get every joke.
And the jokes are plentiful, wonderful and sneaky-smart, like the "London 1837" caption that appears shortly before the guy who held it up sheepishly tries to stay out of frame. Screenwriter Gideon Defoe, adapting his own book, crafts details like the motto of the Royal Society of Science: "Playing God since...." The meta-textual gags - like tossing red spots into the water to mark the trail of the ship across the map - occasionally threaten to steer The Pirates! into the realm of the most frustrating DreamWorks films, but it never opts to live in that hipper-than-thou place.
What, then, is holding back a film like The Pirates! from the kind of success it deserves? The British-dry comedic sensibility? The quirky character design that's just slightly too grotesque to be cute? The use of an eclectic soundtrack that ranges from vintage English Beat to Flight of the Conchords' "I'm Not Crying (It's Just Raining on My Face)"?
Family movie audiences claim they want quality. Here it is.