Who needs humans for a Smackdown? In this bout, our contenders will be lumps of plasticine. England’s Aardman Animation has been entertaining audiences for years with its claymation shorts and feature films showcasing the studio’s fresh, imaginative brand of stop-motion animated comedy. Its most recent offering Pirates! Band of Misfits is a typically off-kilter, spoofish take on pirate movies, featuring an underachieving crew of buccaneers caught up in adventures at sea and onshore.
The same light, unserious approach to the material is used in one of the studio’s earlier features, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Like its pirate cousin, it’s about the misadventures of several clay misfits. In this case, said misfits are the title characters from its series of poplar shorts—a genteel, naïve inventor and his very smart but silent dog.
The ambitions of the pirate captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) far outpace his abilities and those of his ragged crew. This doesn’t stop him from hungering for the Pirate of the Year award, the coveted trophy he has never come close to winning in his long career. He steps up attempts to plunder the seas but he only succeeds in raiding ships with little or no treasure. It becomes painfully obvious that he won’t collect enough booty to qualify for the prize… until he happens upon the Beagle, the flagship of ambitious young naturalist Charles Darwin (David Tennant from Dr. Who). The scientist discovers that the pirate captain’s beloved parrot, Polly, isn’t a parrot at all; rather, she’s the only living dodo bird in existence. The two hatch a scheme to display Polly to the Royal Society in order to win the award for discovery of the year.
Their plan is a success, but it goes awry when notorious pirate-hater Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) arrives to congratulate the winner and quickly discerns that our hero is a buccaneer only disguised as a scientist. It looks like the end of the plank for the captain, but he makes a deal with the queen to leave Polly as an attraction for London’s Zoo in return for a royal pardon and an immense haul of treasure. With that pile of booty, he nearly claims Pirate of the Year, but at the ceremony it’s revealed that he’s been pardoned. This means, technically, he isn’t a pirate anymore and is thus ineligible for the award.
Wracked with guilt, the pirate king returns to London and reunites with Darwin to rescue his beloved bird. They discover a horrifying secret—the queen is a member of a covert society of gourmands that meets occasionally to make a meal out of rare animals. Polly is to be their next main course. With the aid of Darwin and his crew, including the naturalist’s loyal chimp assistant Mr. Bobo, the pirate captain tracks the queen to her luxury liner, but she proves to be a more formidable opponent than her obese figure would suggest.
Something is amiss in the normally sedate English countryside town of West Wallby, home to brilliant yet sheltered inventor Wallace (Peter Sallis) and his faithful and often very clever dog Gromit. A pack of marauding rabbits is decimating the town’s well-tended vegetable patches, and no one can figure out a way to limit the destruction. This becomes a pressing issue when one of the pests, a mutant nocturnal beast dubbed the “were-rabbit,” starts to chomp on big comestibles. Worse still, it happens just as the town is about to host its prestigious giant vegetable growing competition, which can bestow immeasurable horticultural renown on the winner of its Golden Carrot award. The contest is hosted by the sympathetic Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter), who also happens to have obvious romantic chemistry with the shy inventor.
Wallace and Gromit’s current business venture, Anti-Pesto, seems to be having some success with a humane approach that involves relocating the offending rabbits to communities where they can’t do as much damage. Wallace’s rival, the rich and callous Lord Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes), prefers a different kind of pest-control—the homicidally direct practice of shooting the critters.
Soon it becomes apparent that the were-rabbit might be a creature associated with the eccentric inventor and his dog. If so, the two will have to find a way to keep the beast from devouring the super-sized food, while at the same time escaping Quartermaine’s guns. Meanwhile, they have to make sure the giant vegetable competition goes off without a hitch.
It’s hard to get more value for your entertainment buck than with an Aardman movie. Generally created and filmed by a core group of company founders and longtime collaborators, the studio’s shorts and features are always sly, witty and extremely funny—the product of a collective imagination that’s full to the point of overflow. Even the shortest Aardman productions are stuffed with visual detail, subtle comic references, and neat little subplots to layer the foundation story.
That applies especially to both Pirates! and Were-Rabbit. Every scene, every setting, every character is so packed with detail and color it’s hard to appreciate it all in one viewing. This is compounded by the two films’ respective stories, which are breezy and fun while at the same time loaded with many plot turns and twists. Sometimes you’re too busy laughing at the comedy or tracing the story to appreciate the craft of the sets, characters and the animation.
Since both films are crafted with the same very high level of quality, in terms of art and story, it’s as difficult as winning a Pirate of the Year award to choose the better one. If we really, really, had to—and one of the occupational hazards of being a Smackdown ref is that we do—we’d go with the one that has the slightly less complicated story. After all, one of the great pleasures of an Aardman feature or short is the artistry of the design and the details to be found in the sets.
Pirates! is still Aardman-like in the many turns of its plot, but its path is a bit more clear and focused than Were-Rabbit. The latter film packs much more into its contents, what with Wallace’s invention of a brainwashing machine, a human-to-beast transformation, a love triangle centered by a gardening enthusiast, and a scientifically modified rabbit, among many other elements. Whew! It’s almost exhausting to write about. Both films are real treats but Pirates! Band of Misfits gives audiences comparatively more brain room to enjoy the details of the clay world it inhabits. The pirate captain may never get his coveted Pirate of the Year Prize, but he and his film are worthy of booty we consider to be nearly as valuable—a victory in this Smackdown.