The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) enjoys his life of adventure on the high seas, but there are a few problems. His crew is having a spirited debate about the best part of pirating – is it the cutlasses, the looting, the chance to catch exotic diseases, or ham night? Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) has ordered the Royal Navy to get rid of all pirates.
Most important, the Pirate Captain really, really wants to win the coveted “Pirate of the Year” award, reasoning that because “Every time I’ve entered, I’ve failed to win. So, I must have a really good chance this time!” He does have a coffee mug that says “World’s Best Captain” and once won a ribbon for telling the best anecdote about a squid.
The wonderful folks at Aardman (“Chicken Run,” “Wallace and Gromit”) have created another deliriously silly stop-motion animation delight, filled with giddy pleasures and so many witty details flying by that you wish for a pause button. The “Pirate of the Year” application is whisked away quickly, but we get a glance at some of the items requested. Was the booty acquired by exciting adventure, a beauty contest, or perhaps in exchange for bonds? And what is the quality of the beard?
The Pirate Captain’s beard is certainly glossy and bushy enough to win a prize, but – it must be said – he is not up to some of the other candidates in other categories. Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry), and the bling-sporting beauty Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) are out front when it comes to ruthlessness, treasure, and the price on their heads. The Pirate Captain’s wanted poster shows a reward of just 12 doubloons and a free pen. He is not very good at selecting targets for robbery and pillage, boarding a ghost ship, a leper ship, and a boat carrying a school geography field trip.
The prospects for Pirate of the Year seem dim until the Pirate Captain boards another booty-less boat, this one carrying Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who recognizes that the Pirate Captain does have one important asset. It seems the Pirate Captain is as poor at ornithology as he is at treasure-detection. The bird he has insisted is a big-boned parrot named Polly is something much more exotic, and if he presents it to the scientific association and wins their Scientist of the Year award, the fame and fortune just might qualify him for Pirate of the Year!
But others are interested in the bird. Darwin and his trained monkey manservant Mr. Bobo, who communicates entirely via hilarious cue-card style signs and Queen Victoria herself want Polly as well. The various captures and rescues involve various disguises and Aardman’s sublimely inventive chase scenes, combining Rube Goldbergian intricacy with Jackie Chan timing. They also manage to bring in Jane Austen, the Elephant Man, Rubik’s Cube, The Clash, the classic elementary school science experiment combining vinegar and baking soda, and gourmet dining.
The pleasures we expect from an Aardman film are all here, including humor that manages to be both wild and understated. The silent Mr. Bobo, cautioned to be quiet, patiently holds up a second sign repeating the same word, but smaller. And the brilliantly executed action sequences dazzle. The chase scene through Darwin’s house has split-second timing through a museum’s worth of artifacts, including an Easter Island head. The bright and eclectic soundtrack includes very funny new song from Flight of the Conchords. And in the midst of all the action and comedy there is some warmth, even tenderness, as those clay faces become surprisingly expressive, and a moment of friendship and loyalty is genuinely touching.
The British Aardman refreshingly makes few concessions for American sensibilities (only the most devoted Anglophiles will catch the Blue Peter and Slocombe references) and none for children. Gideon Defoe’s screenplay, based on his series of books, is filled with the kind of humor that challenges as it amuses. But the distributor decided that Americans would be put off by the original title. It was released in the UK as “The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!” both funnier and more accurate. The switch to a more “marketable” generic title is disappointing for a film that so amply rewards its confidence in the audience.
Parents should know that the movie includes mild peril and action-style violence, a few brief images that could disturb the youngest viewers (skeleton, swords), brief crude humor, and brief strong language (“crap”)
Family discussion: Why did the Pirate Captain want to be Pirate of the Year so badly? Why wasn’t he a better pirate? What was different about the reasons the Pirate Captain, Charles Darwin, and the Queen wanted Polly?
If you like this, try: “The Pirate” with Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, “The Pirates of Penzance,” with Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt, and the Wallace and Gromit movies from Aardman