Timbers a-shiver with painful regret, let’s just declare this film’s great intentions capsized and not near the joyful fun that Aardman Animations usually delivers. In its original U.K. (and more appropriate) title The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, I was deeply anticipating a fabulous claymation adventure. Instead, this film mostly constitutes a quest for sunken jests.
Your kids might be a little bored, too, though the last 20 minutes drum up excitement. This tale, told with stop-action, conventional, and computer animation, follows a team of ragtag pirates who assist Charles Darwin but run a-fowl of Queen Victoria while actively pursuing the Pirate of the Year award for their hapless captain. Maybe it sounds funny, but the whole thing takes a rather prosaic twist when the plot settles on rescuing a dodo bird (the motley crew assumes it’s a parrot) grabbed by a secret dining-on-near-extinct-animals society (which reminds us of The Freshman). Aardman, once the very pinnacle of nutty integrity, serves up leftovers here. The plot is packed with long setups and corny pay-off gags (a plus), but the whole film feels more whimsical than eccentric-retro-creative, which has long been the Aardman studios hallmark.
It’s as one disillusioned swashbuckler says to Pirate Captain: “You can’t just say ‘arrr’ at the end of a sentence and think it makes everything alright.” All the sweetest laughs from classic Aardman came from sheer artistry; just watch Gromit seriously considering the harebrained Wallace in the midst of his latest invention or scheme. Composed of spirited mud, the puppet puppy simply narrows his dot eyes, and we learn volumes about the exasperatedly loving relationship between a dog and his goofy man. All the complicated plot machinations and electronic inventiveness of Pirates! just undermine Aardman’s appeal, though it is hard to condemn a movie that swallows itself in a final confrontation between a pirate boat and map monster. It is way better than anything Dreamworks makes, but Pirates is nowhere near deserving of a proper “arrr” rating.