You can't take your little kids to The Hunger Games, or some busybody will call Child Protective Services on you. (There's always one.) You tried dragging your five-year-old to Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and she started demanding a pee break every five minutes. So what are you going to do with your squirming sprogs this weekend? Take them to Pirates! Band of Misfits, that's what.
Seriously, this movie is one of the rare animated films for kids that's genuinely fun for adults. It's from the people who did Wallace and Gromit. It's got David Tennant as Charles Darwin. There are some clever bits. There's an airship. It's got heart. And it's a great puppet movie about the power of pretending. Spoilers ahead...
It's a sad commentary on the world that you even have to say "It's got heart," when describing a movie for children. And yet, that's a rare enough phenomenon that it merits comment. These days, your average porn movie has more genuine sentiment, warmth and love for the material than your average merchandising-driven film for kids. When you see something like The Muppets or most Pixar movies, they come as a shock — because we've forgotten that entertainment for kids can actually have real love in it. We're probably raising a generation of sociopaths — but more importantly, we're making a lot of terrible movies.
Luckily, Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists is one of the good ones. (Or, if you're an American who doesn't deserve a cool title, it's called Pirates! Band of Misfits.) You can feel the love in every hand-made frame, because a small army of craftspeople put that frame together, and breathed life into it. This relatively low-budget stop-motion movie is a throwback to a more heartfelt era of film-making.
In Pirates!, there's a pirate captain, whose name is simply The Pirate Captain, and he's desperate to win the coveted Pirate of the Year Award, which he always loses out on to flashier, more marauding pirates. He mostly thinks that piracy is about having a cool beard and a happy crew, and he doesn't actually spend a lot of time slaughtering people for their wealth. But another impending loss in the Pirate of the Year contest makes him raise his game and try to raid a ton of ships — with a series of zany mishaps, until he finally attacks a ship that's transporting a young naturalist, Charles Darwin. Darwin convinces the Pirate Captain that he can reap enormous wealth by helping Darwin win the Scientist of the Year Award — and then the Pirate Captain can use that lucre to win the Pirate of the Year Award, in turn. Unfortunately, the Scientist of the Year contest is in London, under the nose of the pirate-hating Queen Victoria.
It's all immensely silly, in a lovely joyful way. As usual in this sort of thing, the Pirate Captain and his crew mostly enjoy hanging out and being friends, and being the scourge of the seven seas is just sort of incidental. Their big ritual is "Ham Nite," where they eat ham. They're prized possession is Polly, the Captain's parrot, who turns out to be a lot more unique than anybody realized. The Pirate Captain does ridiculous dance routines for his adoring crew, including the obligatory girl-in-disguise Pirate.
Anybody who's ever seen an Aardman production is familiar with the amount of mayhem and slapstick they pack into a stop-motion puppet show, and this movie doesn't disappoint at all. There are some set pieces with so many moving parts, and so much chaos on the screen, it's a total delight to watch things get nuttier and nuttier.
And the theme of pretending is a great one for kids, and yet another way this movie is sort of old-fashioned despite the CG touches here and there. The Pirate Captain wants to be a real pirate so badly, he's basically playing dress-up and acting out a role. And meanwhile, the lonely, pathetic Darwin really terribly wants to be recognized as a great scientist, and to get a girlfriend. It's a classic theme, that we've already seen in movies like Chicken Run — people who want to be something so badly, they manage to transform themselves into something far more unique, amazing and weird.
Another classic Aardman theme that this film advances in a really cool way is the pairing of the over-confident, delusional hero with a much smarter sidekick. The Pirate Captain's relationship with his much more self-aware first mate is classic Wallace and Gromit all the way, and meanwhile Darwin has a monkey butler who communicates via flashcards and seems to know what's going on way better than Darwin himself. That sort of double act never really gets old, because it's about great friendships but also allows us to see quite how self-deluding these characters are.
Oh, and Queen Victoria is a great, superb villain, whose hatred of pirates eventually comes to seem part of a general monomania. There are some jabs at the notion of Empire and the need to subjugate others, which are subtle enough that you never feel lectured or anything. The film's climax becomes a towering edifice of Victorian hubris and insanity, and this film delivers on the promise of its 19th Century setting in grand style.
All in all, Pirates! is a fantastic movie to drag your kids to, and a great addition to the Aardman canon. It's a fantastical version of the nineteenth century where slightly mad scientists rub elbows with flamboyant pirates, and sea monsters are real. In this film, the greatest strength is friendship and the mad desire to embody a romantic archetype, and the greatest sin is the towering Victorian hubris that seeks to devour everything in its path. It's a really fresh, original film that will thrill you and your kids.