NEW YORK — Aardman Animations' distinctively charming brand of Claymation returns to the big screen at last in "The Pirates! Band of Misfits," a delightful romp whose varied pleasures should please kids all along the age spectrum. An easy sell at the box office, it is sequel-ready thanks to a series of books by Gideon Defoe.
The title doesn't hint at the film's plot, which incorporates real-life (if drolly reimagined) historical figures Charles Darwin and Queen Victoria, but it gets at the heroes' lovable-loser appeal: Although their leader, the generically named Pirate Captain voiced by Hugh Grant), sees himself as a rogue to be reckoned with, he and his crew are a flop in the departments of menace and booty-snatching.
They're better at securing smoked meats for Ham Night than locating victims worth robbing, but when a Pirate of the Year event arrives (Salma Hayek and Jeremy Piven entertain as two of the villainous competitors), they start boarding every boat they spy in hopes of impressing the judge. When they attack Darwin's Beagle, the calmly terrified nerd reveals that they already possess a priceless treasure: Polly, their beloved parrot, is actually a rare dodo. Captain's misguided attempt to exploit the bird for gold leads to London, where Victoria's anti-pirate campaign means the shipmates must don absurd disguises while fending off attempts to birdnap Polly.
Although Defoe's witty screenplay overflows with gags for viewers who know a bit of history — ever wanted to see snobby Jane Austen throw a beer stein at poor Joseph Merrick, aka the Elephant Man? — plot points quickly translate to action, with chase scenes involving bubble-filled bathtubs and pedal-driven airships. (The filmmakers may be saving elaborate swordplay for later installments, though pirate slang is hardly in short supply.)
While this tale's cast lacks singular characters like the absent-minded inventor Wallace and his wise and taciturn dog, Gromit, it does offer a terrific wordless animal: Darwin's trained "manpanzee" butler, who dryly comments on the action via dialogue on index cards.
Victorian England is rendered in sets whose scope and detail are enhanced by CG, but computer effects are only noticeable where they nicely complement the animators' models — in sea scenes, for instance, where realistic crashing waves enhance the thrill factor. Other technical touches, like lens curvature in shots through a pirate's spyglass, are more subtle but will delight viewers who appreciate craftsmanship.
"The Pirates! Band of Misfits," a Sony Pictures Animation release, is rated PG for mild action, rude humor and some language. Running time: 88 minutes.