'Pirates!' is delightful camp.

click to enlarge 'PIRATES!': Hugh Grant provides the voice of Pirate Captain image
  • 'PIRATES!': Hugh Grant provides the voice of Pirate Captain.

The continual cultural fascination with pirates, be they of the Caribbean or otherwise, has led us to this: a pirate property in which the pirates don't even have names. Indeed, it's even named, cavalierly, "The Pirates!" The novelist Gideon Defoe writes these books — the fifth is due out this summer — though not much of them when he does, stopping well shy of 200 pages and giving his characters handles such as Pirate Captain and the Pirate with a Scarf and the Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens. He seems to be testing a theory that people these days will buy anything featuring the word "pirate."

An unsuspecting public has fallen into his trap, doubly so now that the first two books in the series have been mined for "The Pirates! Band of Misfits," an animated movie just out. The one wrinkle: Aardman Animations has done such a fine job, the movie is destined to succeed as much on its own merits as for its commercial-friendly subjects.

The Aardman brand will tempt fans on name alone; its 20-year record has been less lucrative but nearly as charming as Pixar's. In "Pirates!" it orchestrates an uptempo 3-D version of the stop-motion animation that the English studio made famous with its "Wallace & Gromit" features and shorts that helped earn director Nick Park four Oscars.

Alas, Park is absent from "Pirates!" and so is his light touch around characters and gadgetry. Still, directors Peter Lord (an Aardman co-founder and a longtime "Wallace & Gromit" producer) and Jeff Newitt achieve a high degree of panache and polish, blending the traditional models with glossy digital animation (particularly in realistic seascapes). The visuals are so myriad and minute you'll have to buy the DVD to explore them all. The jokes are more layered than baklava and twice as nutty. There's a lot of love and attention on-screen, without the fun having been stomped out of it, as with so many films aimed at kids.

The year is 1837, and a crew of particularly un-fearsome pirates, led by Pirate Captain, dawdles its days away, content mostly to enjoy singing and eating ham on the high seas. Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) possesses a luxuriant beard and an uncommonly rotund parrot named Polly, but with more ego than actual pirate qualifications, he steers to Blood Island to nominate himself for a Pirate of the Year award, which he has lost for 20 years straight. (Hard-swaggering waterfront pirate establishments noticed on Blood Island: The Barnacle's Face, Napoleon Blownapart, etc.) Once there, he realizes the competition is stiffer than he'd hoped. Jeremy Piven and Salma Hayek voice pirates with far more pirate cred (more booty, larger bounties on their heads, bloodier bloodthirst) than Pirate Captain, whose best asset is his outlandishly lavish beard.

So Pirate Captain and his ragtag crew sail in search of piratical fortune and board the ship of a young Charles Darwin (David Tennant) who takes a shine to a certain member of Pirate Captain's entourage. Both see fame and fortune ahead, but it'll take them across the path of the pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton). She and Darwin are rendered here in a fashion so counterfactual that it borders on blasphemy. Hilarious, hilarious blasphemy.

A history lesson it ain't. But there won't be a better, more beloved popcorn movie for kids all summer, and come Halloween we'll see trick-or-treaters decked out as the Pirate with Gout or the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate. A tip: Serve ham.


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