There’s an inviolable law of animated films — the more “names” you have in the voice cast, the weaker you know your film is.
Aardman, those meticulous Brits who build clay models and painstakingly animate them into Wallace &Gromit cartoons and the hit “Chicken Run,” tip their hand that way with “The Pirates! Band of Misfits.” A pirate picture that’s entirely too late to the party to have much in the line of fresh pirate gags, it is stuffed with name voice actors, from Hugh Grant as The Pirate Captain to Salma Hayek, Brendan Gleeson, Imelda Stanton, Anton Yelchin and Jeremy Piven.
And all of them sat in a recording booth and struggled to find funny things to say or funny ways to say the not-so-funny things in the script. Amusing in small doses, “Pirates” is the first Aardman film to suffer a serious shortage of sight gags, the first where the whimsy feels forced and the strain shows.
Hugh Grant’s Pirate Captain (that’s his name) is all Hugh Grant stutter and “glittering eyes and glorious beard.” As a pirate, he’s something of a bust, even though his crew adores him.
He figures he’s due for the “Pirate of the Year” award. But he’s always come up short in the booty and pillaging department. There’s always a Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry) or Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) to beat him to the podium.
And so it appears it will be in the 1837 awards, until he captures Charles Darwin (David Tennant), a scientist who craves fame as much as The Pirate Captain. And Darwin recognizes the Captain’s pet “parrot,” Polly, as something altogether more amazing. She’s the last Dodo bird.
Darwin talks The Pirate Captain into sailing to Britain, under the nose of pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), where Darwin hopes to present the bird to The Royal Society, whose entryway is marked “Playing God since 1807.”
So you’ve got pirates roughly 120 years after their heyday, and a scheming Darwin paired with his evolved chimp pal, a “Man Pan Zee,” he calls him. You’ve got other scientists, hoping to win acclaim with everything from airships to a Rubik’s Cube. You have competing pirates, all swagger and swordplay.
What you don’t have is a lot of laughs. Backing the ship up, we hear the “beep beep beeps” of every modern minivan. There are hints passed from pirate to Darwin about this new idea, evolution, which he never picks up on. The Pirate Captain amusingly attacks all manner of un-lucrative prey — a ghost ship, a school “field trip” ship, a plague ship (changed from a leper ship after leprosy-advocacy groups complained). Most of which amounts to a grin, a chuckle.
“The Pirates! Band of Misfits” (2 stars)
A meticulously made animated film that’s about 100 years too late to the pirate party. The script includes plenty of gags but not enough laughs, despite the star-studded cast, which includes Hugh Grant, Salma Hayek, Jeremy Piven, Martin Freeman, Anton Yelchin and Brendan Gleeson.
Rated: PG for mild action, rude humor and some language.
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor.