The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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May 4, 2012

Benji Tunnell: Aardman's 'Pirates' doesn't sail as smoothly as other projects

JOPLIN, Mo. — Children’s entertainment can be pretty inconsistent. For every “Up” or “Despicable Me” we get a “G-Force” or “Bedtime Stories.” That’s why the savvy parents develop such brand loyalty to a movie studio that can turn out reliably good films.

Disney carried that reputation for the longest time, and when their star began to fade they acquired Pixar, the new gold standard in kid’s movies. So many of the others have been hit and miss, with Dreamworks counteracting their first two “Shrek” films with the last two, and Sony Pictures Animation, while off to a solid start, has only just begun to get their feet under them.

One of the more established studios, though one with a fairly low output, is Aardman Animations, the British guys behind the Academy Award winning series of “Wallace & Gromit” stop-motion clay shorts. After bringing their franchise duo to the big screen, they tried their hand at the computer animated “Flushed Away” and “Arthur’s Christmas.”

Both were met with positive critical response but indifference from the paying public. So they now return to their bread and butter, releasing the stop-motion “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” this past weekend.

“Pirates,” based on a children’s book, tells of The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), a hard-luck pirate who holds onto his goal of becoming Pirate of the Year. Beloved by his uniquely named crew (including The Pirate with a Scarf, The Albino Pirate, The Pirate with Gout and The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate), he just can’t seem to score enough booty to defeat arch rivals Cutlass Liz and Black Bellamy.

So Captain goes on a quest to pillage enough to win the coveted prize. But as he seizes ship after ship, he continues to find himself facing increasingly hard luck.

About to give up, he decides to take one more shot and ends up seizing a scientific research vessel that carries Charles Darwin (yes, that Darwin). Darwin takes a special interest in the Captain’s big-boned parrot, giving the Captain the opportunity to finally get the spoils he needs to claim his award.

If you’ve seen “Wallace & Gromit” films (and if not, get thee to Netflix), you’ve experienced the uniquely British sense of humor that defines the characters as much as the wide mouths and big eyes that define their style. It is what makes the films so enjoyable, and it is what I was looking for when going in to “Pirates.”

What I got was a cute, often fun, but relatively predictable piece of entertainment that fell more in line with the typical Hollywood kid’s fare than in the usually exceptional films that Aardman has been a part of.

The fault doesn’t lie with the animation, which is top notch as usual and a comforting throwback to a pre-computer time when animation, whether drawn or sculpted, was done by hand. Mostly abandoned, with the exception of the occasional Tim Burton produced flick, stop-motion has mostly been abandoned with the advent of computers.

But “Pirates” shows that the style can still be relevant in today’s environment. The Aardman look is there. Unfortunately, the wit that usually permeates their work is lacking.

What I was used to was clever, witty jokes slipped in with little setup but which, when peppered throughout, make for an overall enjoyable experience. Instead, the writers reached for the low-hanging fruit rather than challenge themselves to reach for the funnier gags that require a little more work. While it certainly had its moments, it didn’t live up to the standard that the studio had set with its previous work.

“Pirates,” though still a fun distraction, won’t sate the appetites of parents wanting something more than just the same old thing. Hopefully we’ll see an improvement in their next outing. I guess this will have to hold me over until “Brave” makes its arrival.

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