"It was a great, great shame," says Peter Lord of the 2005 fire at the Aardman Animations studio storage facility. "Hundreds of chickens went up in smoke."
Of course, Lord isn't talking about live chickens; he's referring to the hundreds of clay model chickens produced for the Golden-Globe-nominated Chicken Run. Lord is in Tempe speaking after an advanced screening of Aardman's latest claymation romp, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, which opens in theaters this Friday, April 27.
Based on the zany novel The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists by Gideon Defoe (who also penned the screenplay), the film follows a ragtag bunch of hapless pirates - including a fish wearing a hat - headed up by the aptly named Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant). The Pirate Captain may have a luxurious beard, but when it comes to plundering he is woefully inept; his best capture yet (compared to ghost ships and plague boats) is the exploration ship of Charles Darwin (David Tennant). After years of humiliating losses at the Pirate of the Year Awards, the Pirate Captain hopes that Darwin may hold the key to finally obtaining this prestigious pirate honor.
The U.K. release of the film took the name of the novel, but for the American release the word "Scientists" was apparently deemed either too polarizing or dull and educational. Still, the AmericanizedBand of Misfits
manages to be only slightly more approachable thanThe Pirates! Assembly of Eccentrics
The title change is particularly unnecessary when the tone of the film becomes simplistically Hollywood. Defoe's brand of whimsy (his publisher claims he started writing novels to steal a girl away from another guy - it didn't work) may become repetitive for viewers over 10: His goofy scientists are motivated only by the hope that their efforts will attract women, and his Darwin bemoans in his journal, "I'll never get a girlfriend. I'm so unhappy!"
For the animation studio second only to Pixar in its unique brand of genius (Lord talks of his visit to Pixar, taunting "In our world, people don't sit at keyboards, because they're working with their hands."), The Pirates! looks too often like many things we've seen before. It's ironic timing given that Pixar just produced its first feature film to not receive an Academy Award nod, the critically lamented Cars 2.
That doesn't mean it's not a brilliant and fun adventure, but it's no Wallace & Gromit. The ensemble cast of voices, including Jeremy Piven and Salma Hayek, is always excellent, and the animation is as visually entertaining as ever. But there's something too streamlined about the overall look; it's too smooth, too perfect, more like computer imaging than the painstakingly "handmade with love" clay worlds we've come to expect from Aardman's quirky masters.
The other problem is the pacing. Aardman's films are known for stuffing every single frame with background humor: "There were jokes everywhere, absolutely everywhere," says Lord, from storefronts, to signs. But The Pirates! moves too rapidly to catch even a handful of these sight gags.
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Like Chicken Run before it, The Pirates! Band of Misfits is a fantastic film for families that will both dazzle kids and, maybe, get them interested in science. It's for the adults in the audience that this latest film may fall short; beyond rather wicked cameos from famous figures like Jane Austen and the Elephant Man, there just isn't as much depth here - in either visuals or comedy - for those of us buying the tickets.