There's an inviolable law of animated films: The more "names" you have in the voice cast, the weaker 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 fresh pirate gags, it is stuffed with name voice actors: Hugh Grant as The Pirate Captain, Salma Hayek, Brendan Gleeson, Imelda Staunton, 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.
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 has always come up short in the booty and pillaging department. There's always Cutlass Liz (Hayek), Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry) or Black Bellamy (Piven) to beat him to the podium.
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 (Staunton), where Darwin hopes to present the bird to The Royal Society, whose entryway is marked "Playing God Since 1807."
So you have 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 have 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. When the ship backs up, we hear the "beep beep beeps" of every modern minivan. Hints are passed from pirate to Darwin about this new idea, evolution, that 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.
Those of us who love Aardman will appreciate the gorgeous attention to detail, made sharper (but not much) by 3-D. Pirates plays like a fussy film made by fussy little fussbudgets, clever chaps all wrapped up with making perfect Plasticine trees, but who lose track of the funny movie that is supposed to be animated around all this detail. Where's the invention of Wallace & Gromit, the genre-goofing glee of Chicken Run?
Fans know that the weakest Aardman films (Flushed Away wasn't a laugh riot either) are richer and more rewarding than any Shrek, Cars or Ice Age picture. But for as long as these films take to make, for as expensive as they are, it's almost tragic when they spend their efforts rounding up big-name misfits but give them so little mischief to get into.