Thursday, April 26, 2012

Yo! Ho! Ho! and a bucket of clay

There's comic treasure in this animated feature -- and it's not buried.
The folks at Britain's vaunted Aardman Animations specialize in whimsical animated movies with decidedly mischievous twists. If you don't know the Aardman name, you'll probably recognize some of the studio's work: the Wallace & Gromit films, Chicken Run and Arthur Christmas.

Now comes The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Aardman's most satisfying work to date, a high seas adventure that rides on waves of creativity and humor, most of it generated by characters with teeth the size of giant Chiclets, one of Aardman's more recognizable trademarks.

Aardman, of course, adheres to a laborious process in which carefully molded clay figures are shot a frame at a time to create the illusion of fluid motion -- or at least as fluid a motion as such an insanely demanding process allows.

Technical achievements aside, it's ultimately character and story that count, and Pirates doesn't skimp on either.

Competition and its perils drive the action in Band of Misfits. The Pirate Captain (voice by Hugh Grant) wants to win the highly coveted Pirate of the Year award, an honor that has eluded him for 20 years. As it follows the Pirate Captain's ambitious path, the story introduces us to a conniving Charles Darwin (David Tennant), a bellicose Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) and a bad-ass pirate named Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven).

Directors Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt build their story around an ethical issue: Will the Pirate Captain trade his beloved parrot Polly for a shot at the title? This unlikely opportunity for advancement arises when Darwin informs the Captain that Polly isn't a parrot at all, but the last of a vanishing species, a rare dodo.

Darwin's motives aren't pure, either. He hopes the bird help him win his own prize, a prestigious science award from the Royal Society.

Much of the enjoyment of an Aardman movie is found in detailing, as well as in bolder flashes of imagination. An example of the latter: Black Bellamy makes a splashy entrance at a pirate gathering using the tongue of a whale as his red carpet. Very showy.

The characters also serve as a constant source of amusement: Darwin's pet "manpanzee" BoBo -- who serves as the scientist's butler -- communicates by showing title cards, mostly to wry effect.

The 3-D version of Pirates may offer some viewers a bit of extra kick, but the real fun centers on the way the Aardman folks mix humor and craftsmanship to create a movie that should provide enjoyment for kids. In this case, the adults who accompany those kids to the theater may have an even better time.

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