“The Pirates! Band of Misfits” takes place in a nasty little alternate universe.
Queen Victoria is a raving psychopath. Charles Darwin is an idiot. And the guy who steals for a living is a lovable outsider, mostly because he doesn’t go around randomly stabbing people like his “Pirate of the Year” competitors. He does aspire to their “greatness,” though.
Because it was made by Aardman Animations, creators of the legendary “Wallace Gromit” series, “Pirates” has its charms. They tend to come from the aptly named hero Pirate Captain (voiced by a near-unrecognizable Hugh Grant) and his oddball crew, whose members carry monikers like the Albino Pirate and the Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens.
Ostracized by the mean kids of the swashbuckling world, these misfits literally fall into the study of a depressed Darwin (David Tennant), who recognizes Pirate Captain’s “parrot” as the last surviving dodo bird. This leads to a scientists’ competition in London, which is only slightly less deadly than that of the pirates. It also puts them in the path of Her Majesty (Imelda Staunton), who has her own interest in the captain’s pet.
Veteran Aardman directors Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt fill the screen with the expected clever visual details, and Gideon Defoe, adapting his book “The Pirates! in an Adventure With Scientists,” offers similarly inventive dialogue.
All the good stuff is around the edges, though, or zooming by so fast, you don’t have time to enjoy it. Take Darwin’s trained chimp, who expresses himself by holding up signs, many of which contain amusing comments on the action. He could have been the movie’s break-out star. Instead, he’s constantly upstaged by all the cutaways to people getting hit in the head (or worse).
As it races frantically to its conclusion, “Pirates” becomes more mean-spirited than funny, undermining any attempts at a positive message about loyalty and friendship.
There’s nothing wrong with putting some grown-up material in a kids’ movie, but it should ultimately support the family-friendly tone — not scream in its ear while pummeling it to death.