Disney has the pedigree, DreamWorks has the pop-culture meta-savvy, Pixar has peerless first-rate storytelling and Japan’s Studio Ghibli has the perfect blend of family-friendly lyricism and lysergic fantasy. So what could the U.K.’s Aardman Animation bring to our oversaturated kids’ entertainment market, you ask? A keenly calibrated sense of Pythonesque silliness, actually; and anyone still doubting that the Claymation studio behind Wallace and Gromit deserves a seat at the grown-ups’ table only needs to see its pitch-perfect collaboration with author-screenwriter Gideon Defoe in this adaptation of two of his goofy, demented swashbuckling tales.
A pirate captain named, appropriately, the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), can’t plunder to save his parrot’s life. But his sheer incompetence doesn’t stop him from having a loyal crew—credit his ship’s morale-boasting “Ham Nights”—or from trying to win the Pirate of the Year award. Some chance encounters, with Charles Darwin (Doctor Who’s David Tennant) and the seafarer-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), however, distract the good Captain from attaining his goal. Characters with names like the Pirate with Gout give you a sense of the Goon Show–level of humor here; even the requisite animal sidekick, Darwin’s sophisticated “manpanzee” Mister Bobo, is more droll than cute. A single nod to hip-hop culture feels like pandering, and you’ll wish that Salma Hayek and Jeremy Piven’s villainous competitors for the prize were more than just extended celebrity-voice cameos. But no one else has come close to translating England’s homegrown blend of deadpan and madcap for a younger audience, much less with such impressive Claymated technique. You couldn’t ask for better lesson in "Anglo-Absurdism for Beginners."
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