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The Pirates! Band of Misfits is all over the map. Literally! At several points in the film, we watch the pirates move across a map! On the way, they drop little red floats behind them, to mark their path! Ha ha!

I feel comfortable opening this review with that sort of creaky humor because the film feels comfortable including it. Also because it really is all over the map. A gag wherein a cannon takes coins like a laundromat washing machine is banged up against a joke about London society's passing interest in Joseph "The Elephant Man" Merrick, which in turn shares space with the notion that Charles Darwin was just a poor schlub who did science in an effort to impress the ladies. Oh, and that pirates live for ham night.

It's surprisingly adult for an animated film, laced with casual references to running people through, exotic diseases, and a crest for the Royal Society of Science that reads, "Playing God Since 18 something or other." At the same time, it's surprisingly silly for a film about thieves and murderers. The Queen of England doesn't hate pirates because they steal. She hates them because of "the idiot shanties" and "the ridiculous hats." And our hero, the Pirate Captain, isn't in it for the looting. He just wants to be Pirate of the Year.

What holds everything together (and keeps it sailing through a few patches of storytelling doldrums) is the wonderful Aardman animation, which is here pushed to new heights and depths and breadths and levels of detail. Whether the goings-on are lowbrow slapstick, grand-scale action, or the exchanges of gentle witticisms, it's just fun to look at. The company has found a niche between Pixar's breathtaking beauty and Dreamworks' crazy funtimes: slower and more old-fashioned, but still delightful.

Reader rating: two stars

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