Has the world suffered enough from pirates? In one of the best jokes in The Pirates! Band of Misfits (showtimes here) a crewmember observes, "You can't just say 'arrr' and make everything better.'
This sweet, winning and delightfully funny new full-length stop-action cartoon might be hard to sell. Perhaps the film will have a guaranteed audience from families who remember how good Aardman Animations is from Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run and others.
It relates the saga of an indifferently able pirate and his crew, including all due adventures (sword fights, chases, last-minute rescues from the chopping block).
The film also serves as a show-biz allegory. The pirate captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) aims for the Pirate of the Year award—essentially, an oversized version of those rings they used to have in gumball machines, complete with genuine rubyette in the eye socket. Flashier candidates sadly outdistance him.
Lured to fame, the captain is a mark for schemers. One is the evil Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton). The other is the conniving Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who tragically betrays his principles in the hopes of meeting girls.
On the phone with producer and co-director (with Jeff Newitt) Peter Lord, we discussed the possibility of pirate movie overload.
Lord said, "We were concerned about those other pirates spoiling the market place for us, but our approach was the completely different. We started from a whole different place. If we refer to anything, it is to the classic pirate movies, such as Treasure Island or the Burt Lancaster film The Crimson Pirate.'
The Pirates! had just gone No. 1 in England. On tour in the United States, Lord had just tweeted that he'd visited Pixar. Was there much similarity between the Emeryville campus and Aardman headquarters?
"Um, it's a bit of different world. Pixar is a little bit like heaven—the grass is green, the sky is blue, the people wander around with seraphic smiles on their faces. But actually the job is boring. ... They have to work at computers all day. In our world, we have the real sets. Our studio looks a bit like Aladdin's cave. There are 40 different miniature units all going at once with black-velvet curtains between them to keep the light out. All of the jewel-like props—it's enticing.'
But if the facilities are different, the work is essentially the same.
"People ask how long a film takes. Whenever I answer, there are gasps of horror and astonishment. All animated films take about five years, whether they're made by us or Pixar or DreamWorks. There is an element of the handmade in our work. People think you must be so patient to move the characters fractions of an inch. But that's also what's done with computers. We're all in the same business. We just use different tools.'
All worth it, perhaps, to instruct growing children in the story of Queen Victoria's secret life as a ninja.
According to Lord, "It's likely the most historically inaccurate film ever made. It's magnificently wrong—in one scene we have Jane Austen and the Elephant Man together. She died 50 years before Mr. Merrick was born. Napoleon is sitting side by side with Queen Victoria. When the crew asked about the costumes, I told them it was set in the olden days, so make it look classic.'
Among the dunce-capped history here is the presence of Polly, the dodo that the pirate captain mistakes for a parrot. The last of these birds had died more than 150 years before the film is set. You come out of The Pirates! longing for a pet dodo. How does one animate them?
"It's surprisingly easy,' Lord finished. "She's about the size of a squash ball. Big wide hips, very short legs, a very amusing sort of swinging-butt walk, big wide eyes, a little sensitive smile on the beak. The beak is just gently wired to give quite subtle little glimpses of optimism.'
Such subtle glimpses, such increments, are Aardman's specialty, and once again these claymation wizards have come up with treasure.