Maniacally inventive and tightly packed, if not overpacked, "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" comes from the Aardman animation folks behind Wallace & Gromit, "Chicken Run" and, more recently, "Arthur Christmas." Their latest may be easier to admire than to love; it's more tone-funny and incidental-muttered-aside funny than, for example, your average DreamWorks smash, where every other comic beat ends with a cartoon animal getting bashed in the nethers and then quoting some inappropriate gangster movie.
But a few hours after seeing the 3-D version of "The Pirates!" I was smiling at the memory of the best bits, some so fleeting they practically dare an audience to catch them on the fly. Director Peter Lord works in an interesting mixture of stop-motion and digital animation.
Also, I like the notion of high seas scalawags who are essentially lousy at their jobs, and who may plunder and occasionally kill, but are sociable and easygoing and take their cue from the good-time bloke running the show, the Pirate Captain voiced by Hugh Grant.
The Pirate Captain boasts an oft-admired "luxuriant" red beard and a unique shipboard mascot, a "big-boned" parrot named Polly who is actually a dodo. The plot, adapted by screenwriter Gideon Defoe from his 2004 jape "The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists," is a silly thing, involving the Captain's quest to become Pirate of the Year.
Spying the dodo, naturalist Charles Darwin ("Chuck" to the Captain; the Captain also calls the diabolical villainess Queen Victoria "Vicky") plots a kidnapping so he can present his finding to his peers and win his own share of glory.
On the page, Defoe's story is wonderfully dry and consistently droll. The movie has those same qualities, though the scale of the action feels a bit frantic. Some of the high-velocity set pieces are tiring and tend to sit on the fun. (The soundtrack at the screening I attended was set at "Xelerator hand dryer" levels.) The visual detail in "The Pirates!" is really something, yet I wonder if all the bustle tends to encourage younger viewers to tune out rather than lean in.
That said, the Aardman people can always be counted on for such felicities as Darwin's simian factotum, the silent Mr. Bobo. The monkey communicates by way of flashcards. Alarmed by the latest turn in the plot, he flashes a card saying "BUT ..." and then, exhorted to shush by his employer, he quickly flashes a second card reading "but ..." At the scientific discovery competition, the settings on the applause-o-meter include "rather fusty" and, on the high end, "ladies fainting." Uneven but rollicking, "The Pirates!" has a personality to call its own. The paperback edition of Defoe's book, delightfully, is appended by a faux-list of other titles in the "Pirates!" series. Among them: "The Pirates! In an Adventure with Your Mother"; "The Pirates! In an Adventure with Risk Management"; and "The Pirates' Rainy Day Indoors."
'Pirates! Band of Misfits' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG (for mild action, rude humor and some language)
Running time: 1:27