The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), cruising the seven seas in search of the old-fashioned kind of booty, is not so much a ne’er-do-well as a rare-do-well. He and his crew have fallen into a long depression; the ships they commandeer turn out to be carrying ghosts, nudists or the plague. So when he lands in London, in 1837, in the unlikely company of the young Charles Darwin (David Tennant), and seems trapped by his most formidable foe, the Captain has only one resource left: foolish hope. He hatches a scheme, consoling Darwin by saying, “It’s only impossible if you stop to think about it.”
Stop-motion animation, the format employed to make The Pirates! Band of Misfits, sounds impossible even if you don’t stop to think about it. Artisans devise characters and props made of clay or plastic, shoot one frame of film, then adjust the models 24 times for every second of screen time. The craft, also known as Claymation, requires a saintly or masochistic devotion. The wonder is that stop-motion directors not only create plausible motion; they bring their figurines and dollhouse accoutrements to vibrant life. Will Vinton used the technique for his California Raisins commercials in 1986 (“I Heard It Through the Grapevine”) and Tim Burton for The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride.
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The stop-motion masters are the elves at Aardman Studios in Bristol, England. Their resident genius, Nick Park, earned Oscars for his short comedies Creature Comforts, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave — the last two featuring the addled bachelor inventor Wallace and his dog Gromit, a much superior being. Park moved to feature films with Chicken Run in 2000 and the 2005 Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which contains 24,000 storyboards and 222,400 shots; the numbers alone are daunting, never mind (no, mind very carefully) the writer-director’s deliciously dour view of the English, in the twilight of Empire, as fretful souls who stumble into heroism by failing upward. Park is one of the sublime comic artists of the last few decades, and no one should make a stop-motion film without him.
(MORE: Read TIME’s review of The Curse of the Were-Rabbit)
Aardman did, though. With Park reportedly toiling on some secret project, The Pirates! was directed by Peter Lord, his longtime colleague and co-director of Chicken Run, and Jeff Newitt. Their collaboration has produced a sweet and often engaging picture; audiences are less likely to bust a gut laughing than to find themselves smiling out loud. The Pirate Captain could be an ancestor of Park’s Wallace: a dreamer with grand notions, a blustering optimism and a deficient skills set. The movie — known in Britain as The Pirates! in An Adventure With Scientists, after the Gideon Defoe novel that the author turned into a screenplay — is a cheerful entertainment, suitable for kids and parents of the brighter stripe. It’s just not Nick Park great.
(READ: TIME’s review of Chicken Run)
With his rather more resourceful second-in-command, The Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman), who plays Gromit to his Wallace, the Captain has yearned to win the Pirate of the Year award that usually goes to one of his craftier rivals: Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) or Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven). His only consolation is the loyalty of his crew and his faithful parrot Polly. From Darwin, the Captain learns that plump Polly is not just a “big-boned” relative of the parrots in Rio but the last surviving dodo. Off to London to capture a worthier prize, Scientist of the Year, the Captain and Darwin run afoul of Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), who has declared a war on pirates and craves to add Polly to her exotic menagerie.
Returning to stop-motion after a troubled collaboration with DreamWorks on the 2006 CGI feature Flushed Away, the Aardmanians venture into 3-D animation more vivaciously, imparting scenes at sea and in Victorian London with a dizzyingly ornate sense of detail. (CGI is used sparingly here, as in the creation of semi-realistic ocean waves; you can’t make churning water stop in Claymation.) The curious eye will be occupied by cunning throwaway gags: a trio of rats perform clog dancing; the Captain, holed up in Darwin’s London digs, outfits the bedroom four-poster with a hammock; a sign on a city wall reads “Live Sports: Urchin Throwing, Cockney Basting.” A glimpse of the Queen’s own flagship reveals that it is called the QV1.
(MORE: Read TIME’s review of Flushed Away)
The real Victoria was 18 in 1837, but is portrayed here as a dowager of dark intent. Filching characters from the breadth of her century, The Pirates! allows cameo appearances by Jane Austen (who died in 1817) and John Merrick the Elephant Man (not born until 1862). The movie also reduces Darwin from the brilliant father of evolution to a sad, inept virgin. Playing fast and loose with historical and chronological facts is a lesser sin than forcing the Pirate Captain out of his amiable and, at heart, innocent character, which occurs when he abandons the dodo for a roomful of treasure. Set pieces like a chase down stairs and streets in a bathtub are briskly realized, but seem clichéd in comparison with action scenes in Park’s short films — the never-to-be topped model-train climax in The Wrong Trousers, for glorious example.
(MORE: Read about Wallace & Gromit’s Internet shorts)
We’re not saying that a Park-less film makes his studio an Aardman out. In 2002-04, Richard Goleszowski directed an excellent TV spinoff of Creature Comforts, including a Christmas special (in which British citizens portrayed as animals attempt to sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas”) that offers 22 minutes of sustained comic insight. The Pirates!, for all its vagrant appeal, isn’t in that exalted category; it lacks urgency and coherence. The movie is like a pirate without a parrot, Darwin without Natural Selection, Wallace without Gromit.