GENRE: Animated antics on the seven seas
THE PITCH: The proud, bumbling Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) teams up with young naturalist Charles Darwin (David Tennant) and defies pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) in a scheme to win the Pirate of the Year Award. Disclaimer: Aardman Animations may take liberties with the historical record.
MONEY SHOTS: From pirate schooners to ramshackle villages to cobblestone London streets, the film's models look uniformly fantastic. A leaping whale crashes into a dockside tavern and out of its mouth strolls the Pirate Captain's rival, Black Bellamy. A runaway bathtub careens through Darwin's house amid skeletons and other animal samples. The Pirate Captain, passing as "The Scientist Captain," gives a razzle-dazzle presentation to the Royal Society.
BEST LINE: "You can't always just say 'arr' at the end of a sentence and think that makes everything all right," the loyal Pirate with a Scarf (The Hobbit's Martin Freeman) tells his misguided Captain. The Pirates! gets props for otherwise keeping its "arrs" to a minimum.
WORST LINE: "She's not fat, she's just big-boned," The Pirate Captain says in defense of his pet parrot, which Darwin suspects may actually be an extinct dodo.
BODY COUNT: There's plenty of slapstick violence, but no blood or consequences. For instance, comely Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) stabs Peg-Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry), who collapses but is later seen alive and well.
FASHION STATEMENT: The only thing the Pirate Captain loves more than ham is his luxuriant beard. One pirate wears a tangerine beard so the rest of the crew doesn't notice that she's actually a woman. At the awards banquet, the Captain wears a pimped-out pirate coat of red velvet and fur trim. The pirates apparently have an endless supply of lab coats, Girl Scout uniforms, and other disguises.
SOUNDTRACK: Flight of the Conchords' "I'm Not Crying" embellishes an emotional low point. The film makes clever use of vintage punk and reggae, particularly Tenpole Tudor's "Swords of a Thousand Men." (My daughter pointed out a conspicuous lack of sea shanties, however.)
INSIDE JOKE: The Pirate of the Year Ballot includes an entry for "Roaring" with three choices: "Regular," "Incessant," and "Brian Blessed" in honor of the booming, bearded British character actor who voices the Pirate King.
ART IMITATES LIFE? The Pirate of the Year Award ceremony deliberately spoofs the Academy Awards, so you wonder if Aardman Animations identifies with the underdog pirates and sees the more successful pirates like Black Bellamy as the equivalent of popular, Oscar-winning studio Pixar.
CONTROVERSY: The trailers included a joke about the Pirate Captain accidentally attacking a "leper boat," earning the ire of leprosy advocacy groups. Now the scene identifies the pestilential ship as a "plague boat," at least until some kind of Plague-Sufferers Union gets up in arms.
BETTER THAN THE BOOK? They're about equal. In England, the film's called The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists after the first book in Gideon Defoe's silly novel series. The books have more deadpan absurdity a la Monty Python or Douglas Adams, while the film is more exaggerated and filled with funny background details, along the lines of Mad magazine.
HOW'S THE 3D? Not bad, but not worth paying the extra doubloons if you have the option.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Aardman Animations' first stop-motion feature film since The Curse of the Were-Rabbit has the same warmth and whimsy that marks all of its work, for kids and adults alike. The Pirates! doesn't quite match the berserk ingenuity of the Wallace & Gromit shorts, particularly in the lame finale, but still has enough high spirits to send your troubles down to Davy Jones' locker.
I can see Rushdie's stuff adapting well. Lots of plot to play with.