Combustible Celluloid
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With: (voices) Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant, Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, Lenny Henry, Brian Blessed, Anton Yelchin, Brendan Gleeson, Ashley Jensen, Al Roker
Written by: Gideon Defoe, based on his novel
Directed by: Peter Lord, Jeff Newitt
MPAA Rating: PG for mild action, rude humor and some language
Running Time: 88
Date: 03/28/2012

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

A Cutlass Above the Rest

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Though it's presented in 3D and will no doubt be marketed seven ways to Sunday, there's something at the core of The Pirates! Band of Misfits that's willfully, defiantly, wonderfully old-fashioned.

First, there are the pirates themselves, which are as much a part of movie history as film stock. These include many adaptations of Peter Pan and Treasure Island, and range from Errol Flynn in Captain Blood to Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Then there's the handmade, stop-motion animation, courtesy of director Peter Lord and Aardman Animations, the company that also brought us Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run.

Though the movie is gorgeously detailed and elaborate, it was actually built and manipulated, for the most part, by human hands.

Finally, there's the writing, by Gideon Defoe, who adapted his own novel. It contains an astonishingly high frequency of good one-liners and visual gags, probably several per minute, so that even if one flops, another one will be along in just a few seconds.

The story follows Pirate Captain (wonderfully voiced by Hugh Grant). He's a scourge of the high seas, famous for his well-kempt beard and for "Ham Night" on board his ship.

He's much loved by his crew, with names like: Pirate with a Scarf (voiced by Martin Freeman), Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin), Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), and Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen).

This year, Pirate Captain wants to win Pirate of the Year. Unfortunately, his skills at nabbing booty are a little soft. But fortunately, the answer to his prayers lays with his parrot, Polly, who turns out to be the last of the Dodo birds.

This is the kind of sly movie in which Charles Darwin (David Tennant) and Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) are the bad guys.

It's hard to emphasize enough just how intricate the movie is. No small touch is left out, from the funny newspapers and magazines the characters read to little strings of fat dribbling from a slice of ham.

Yet it's also warmly human movie, with characters so expressive you'll want to join the crew.

And, despite the onslaught of pirate humor, and the allusions to things like "grog" and sexy mermaids, the movie still has snagged a PG rating; these pirates are no more vulgar than Errol Flynn.

If The Pirates! catches on with kids who want to see it ten times or more, parents won't mind watching too.

Note: I've now seen this movie three times and I'm ready to see it again. Columbia (Sony) has released a gorgeous DVD/Blu-ray combo pack with lots of extras for animation nerds. It starts with a fun main menu screen (a close look at the pirate town), and a commentary track with director Peter Lord, co-director Jeff Newitt, and editor Justin Krish. There's a fun new short 18-minute cartoon, "So You Want to Be a Pirate," a 20-minute making-of featurette, and an 8-minute featurette about the complex bathtub chase sequence.

For kids, there's a "disguise dress up" game on the Blu-ray and a "flash card" game on the DVD. Perhaps best of all is Lord's Oscar-nominated animated short Wat's Pig (1996) and his short "animated documentary" War Story (1988). The disc also comes with previews and optional online bonuses.

(There's also a 3D Blu-ray available for the few that have invested in that technology.)

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