After dipping its toes into pure CG animation for “Arthur Christmas,” Aardman integrates its feted old-school stop-motion technique with top-drawer visual effects to create the irrepressibly amusing “The Pirates! Band of Misfits.” Although this family-friendly tale of feckless adventurers pursuing a prize is consistently funnier than “Arthur,” in language, humor and attitude it’s as endearingly British as Yorkshire pudding, soccer hooliganism and wonky teeth, which may temper its fortunes beyond Blighty. There, the Sony release will merrily plunder cash registers, but pirate appeal should still help it shiver B.O. timbers elsewhere, before an ancillary pillage.
Deftly and rather freely adapted by Gideon Defoe from his own humorous, not-necessarily-for-kids novel “The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists” (the pic’s title in the U.K.), the 1837-set story centers around a hero known only as the Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant, growling down an octave).
The Captain proudly boasts a luxuriant beard, even if his modest haul of doubloons is less impressive. Despite his manifest shortcomings as an extorter of wealth on the high seas, his crew remains fiercely loyal to him. Plus, they don’t mind being known only by descriptive monikers, such as the Pirate With a Scarf (Martin Freeman), the Pirate With Gout (Brendan Gleeson) or the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen), a femme with an obviously fake beard whom no one seems to have pegged as a girl.
The Captain sets his sights on winning the coveted Pirate of the Year award, even though his rivals — Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry), and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) — have much bigger booty, in the original, piratical sense of the word.
After several ill-fated attempts to build up his treasure chest, the Captain and crew happen upon young naturalist Charles Darwin (former “Doctor Who” David Tennant), who notices that their ship’s “big-boned” bird-in-residence, Polly, is not actually a parrot but rather the last dodo on Earth. Darwin persuades them to bring Polly to the Royal Academy to receive a “priceless” award. However, when virulent pirate-phobe Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) sees Polly, she insists she simply must have her for the Royal Zoo and offers the Captain an immense fortune, prompting a crisis of conscience. It turns out that the monarch, who’s more than just a pretty national figurehead, has a much more nefarious plan in mind.
Helmer Peter Lord, one of Aardman’s co-founders and director of some of the outfit’s darker early work (such as short “Going Equipped”), has taken producing credits on most of the company’s recent output, giving him a lower industry profile than colleague Nick Park (with whom he co-directed “Chicken Run”). But based on the evidence here, Lord has a steely grip on what gives the Aardman its brand value: an exhaustive attention to detail that crams the intricate sets with peripheral-vision jokes; a very droll, quintessentially English sense of humor (Blood Island is so named because it’s “the exact shape of some blood”); and ruthlessly efficient comic timing.
Slightly saltier in sensibility than Park’s cozier “Wallace and Gromit” pics, the humor mostly skews toward an older age bracket, even though younger tots will get a visual rush from the slapstick setpieces. A chase down a staircase in a bathtub and the de rigueur climactic battle between the Captain and a swashbuckling Victoria aboard her fabulously Steampunk-style ship rep bravura displays of stop-motion technique, coordinating several figures at once, all moving through space.
Although most auds won’t notice, animation geeks will swoon over what Lord and Co. have accomplished technically. As in “Coraline,” the use of 3D enhances the sculptural technique and lends itself well to dramatic lighting effects, but it never distracts, and the pic won’t suffer a bit in 2D. Though the plasticine figures still have a pleasingly tactile, smushy quality, they’re modeled with great subtlety; new methods of rendering mouth movements have enhanced verisimilitude, and the CG is used strategically to conquer always tricky materials like water and smoke.
Matching the cheerfully anachronistic jokes in the script, the eclectic soundtrack choices add a contempo vibe with a mix of reggae classics and tunes by Supergrass and Flight of the Conchords.