If nothing else, I can say that Aardman's latest is one of the best-looking movies I've seen in 2012. Now, it should be said that I'm biased here, being partial to stop-motion in particular, specifically the way that this style of animation has a level of texture and depth that CG hasn't quite reached yet. Pirates! Band of Misfits, from Aardman director Peter Lord (he wrote and directed Chicken Run and numerous stop-motion shorts over the last 30 years) is populated with distinctive characters and it's nuts to think how much time and effort has gone into bringing them to the screen along with backgrounds filled with all sorts of cute little side jokes.
Oh, and the movie also happens to be very funny, a spoof on Pirate pictures without getting all that much weighed down with pop culture the way other spoofs-for-kids tend to. Lumping in everything from a Pirate of the Year competition to a battle with a gun-toting Queen Victoria to John Merrick, to a villainous Charles Darwin. So okay, it is focused on historical call-outs but that's way more interesting (and enduring) than a tired reality TV callout or something making its way into the movie.
The film follows Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) and his motley crew of high seas brigands who love nothing more than pillaging and eating ham aboard their ship. But Pirate Captain has an ambition: he wants to win the coveted Pirate of the Year trophy that's eluded him for two decades, if only to rub it in the noses of the flashier and more successful pirates Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek).
When a series of high seas heists go bad, Pirate Captain accidentally stumbles on a possible chance to strike it rich and bring home a pile of booty after hijacking Charles Darwin on his ship, The Beagle. Darwin's trying to find an exotic specimen to bring him fame and fortune back in England and wouldn't you know it, Pirate Captain's "parrot" is actually the last of the dodos.
From there, it's a trip to London, evading the pirate-hating Queen's guards with a visit to the Royal Scientific Society, the near destruction of Darwin's house involving a chase with a monkey butler, a runaway tub, and a seemingly endless staircase.
Pirates! works so well because of all of the small bits and nods throughout, from the ballot form which has "Brian Blessed" under the Type of Laugh category, even all the way back to one of its first shots with a pan through a window which pulls down a little too far to find a palace employee trying to rush out of the frame. And hey, not a single body humor joke or Smashmouth song in sight (although there are a couple of classic tracks from The Clash, The Pogues, and Jimmy Cliff make their way into the film).
The voice acting is also top-notch, Hugh Grant doing sweet-natured buffoon like a champ with Martin Freeman as his long-suffering second-in-command, The Pirate With a Scarf. David Tennant is all bottled frustration and unrequited love as Darwin, while Anton Yelchin, Brenand Gleeson, and Ashley Jensen fill out their small but funny parts as the rest of the crew.
Oh! And the 3D is actually well-executed--given how bright and colorful the movie is, the 3D serves to enhance the movie instead of distracting from it. It's like a bold underline under what's onscreen, adding an extra layer of tactility to the gorgeously-rendered models.
Smart, funny, and good-looking, Pirates! was one of the most pleasant animated surprises in recent memory and is well worth your time.
While the 3D disc only has a couple of trailers, the regular Blu-ray and DVD are packed with extras (with a couple of exclusives on the Blu):
Director's commentary: Lord is joined by Co-Director Jeff Newitt and Editor Justin Krish for a feature-length discussion about the making of the movie.
So You Want to Be A Pirate?: This short brings together the characters from the feature in a talk show format to talk about the joys and perils of high seas piracy.
A pair of Peter Lord's short films: Two of the animator's early claymation shorts--Wat's Pig and War Story--are included here with optional commentary.
Pirate Disguise Dress Up Game: A matching game--you know, for the kids.
From Stop to Motion Featurette: A breakdown of how the film was made.
Bubbles of Fun: The Bathtub Chase Scene Featurette: Getting more in-depth in the film's big setpiece inside Darwin's home.
Mr. Bobo's Flashcard Challenge
The Pirates! Band of Misfits is available now on DVD, 3D Blu-ray, and VOD now.